Written by Jeremy Mittman
An increase in workplace mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies has yielded an increase in employees’ requests for special exemptions. This week, the EEOC issued updated guidance on how employers should handle religious objections to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The guidance explains how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, applies. Under Title VII, employers are required to provide employees with reasonable accommodations based on “sincerely held” religious beliefs absent any “undue hardship” to their operations. Here is a breakdown of the new guidance:
Employees must inform their employer that they are requesting a religious exemption to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, but there is no specific language they must use to do so. As a best practice, employers should advise employees and applicants of the appropriate procedures to request a religious exemption.
Employers may ask for additional information regarding an employee’s religious exemption request. Although an employer should generally assume that requests for religious accommodations are based on sincerely held beliefs under Title VII, an employer may make a “limited factual inquiry” if they have an objective basis for questioning the request. Note that under Title VII objections to the COVID-19 vaccine based on social, political, economic or personal preferences do not qualify as religious beliefs and are not protected.
Employers who demonstrate an “undue hardship” to accommodate an employee’s request for a religious exemption do not need to grant it. An employer should first consider all possible reasonable accommodations to requests for a religious exemption, including telework or reassignment. However, if an employer can demonstrate that it is unable to grant the exemption without an “undue hardship” on their operations, they are not required to do so. Examples of undue hardship include impaired workplace safety, diminished efficiency, or the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other employees or the public.
Requests for a religious exemption must be considered on a case by case basis. Granting one request does not mean that an employer has to grant all requests. Determining whether exempting an employee from getting the COVID-19 vaccine would pose an undue hardship depends on the specific facts regarding that employee’s duties and type of workplace.
An employer does not have to provide an employee’s preferred accommodation if other accommodations are also effective. If more than one accommodation is determined to be effective in eliminating an employee’s religious conflict to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the employer may choose which accommodation to offer. In the case that an employer decides to offer an accommodation that was not the employee’s proposed accommodation, the employer should provide the employee with an explanation.
Employers may reconsider religious accommodations. Employers may reevaluate requests for religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine due to changed circumstances. An employee’s religious beliefs may evolve over time or a religious accommodation may subsequently pose an undue hardship on the employer’s operations. Employers should consider alternative accommodations and discuss any concerns with the employee before revoking a religious accommodation.