Under the ADA, may an employer require a COVID-19 vaccination for all employees entering the workplace, even though it knows that some employees may not get a vaccine because of a disability?
Yes, provided certain requirements are met. Under the ADA, an employer may require an individual with a disability to meet a qualification standard applied to all employees, such as a safety-related standard requiring COVID-19 vaccination, if the standard is job-related and consistent with business necessity. If a particular employee cannot meet such a safety-related qualification standard because of a disability, the employer may not require compliance for that employee unless it can demonstrate that the individual would pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of the employee or others in the workplace. A “direct threat” is a “significant risk of substantial harm” that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation. 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r). This determination can be broken down into two steps: determining if there is a direct threat and, if there is, assessing whether a reasonable accommodation would reduce or eliminate the threat.
To determine if an employee who is not vaccinated due to a disability poses a “direct threat” in the workplace, an employer first must make an individualized assessment of the employee’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job. The factors that make up this assessment are: (1) the duration of the risk; (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (3) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and (4) the imminence of the potential harm. The determination that a particular employee poses a direct threat should be based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge about COVID-19. Such medical knowledge may include, for example, the level of community spread at the time of the assessment. Statements from the CDC provide an important source of current medical knowledge about COVID-19, and the employee’s health care provider, with the employee’s consent, also may provide useful information about the employee. Additionally, the assessment of direct threat should take account of the type of work environment, such as: whether the employee works alone or with others or works inside or outside; the available ventilation; the frequency and duration of direct interaction the employee typically will have with other employees and/or non-employees; the number of partially or fully vaccinated individuals already in the workplace; whether other employees are wearing masks or undergoing routine screening testing; and the space available for social distancing.
If the assessment demonstrates that an employee with a disability who is not vaccinated would pose a direct threat to self or others, the employer must consider whether providing a reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship, would reduce or eliminate that threat. Potential reasonable accommodations could include requiring the employee to wear a mask, work a staggered shift, making changes in the work environment (such as improving ventilation systems or limiting contact with other employees and non-employees ), permitting telework if feasible, or reassigning the employee to a vacant position in a different workspace.
As a best practice, an employer introducing a COVID-19 vaccination policy and requiring documentation or other confirmation of vaccination should notify all employees that the employer will consider requests for reasonable accommodation based on disability on an individualized basis. (See also K.12 recommending the same best practice for religious accommodations.)
Under the ADA, if an employer requires COVID-19 vaccinations for employees physically entering the workplace, how should an employee who does not get a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability inform the employer, and what should the employer do?
An employee with a disability who does not get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability must let the employer know that he or she needs an exemption from the requirement or a change at work, known as a reasonable accommodation. To request an accommodation, an individual does not need to mention the ADA or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation.”
Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know to whom to refer the request for full consideration. As a best practice, before instituting a mandatory vaccination policy, employers should provide managers, supervisors, and those responsible for implementing the policy with clear information about how to handle accommodation requests related to the policy.
Employers and employees typically engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not impose an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense) on the employer. This process may include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting medical documentation about the employee’s disability.
In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website as a resource for different types of accommodations. JAN’s materials about COVID-19 are available at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm. Employers also may consult applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) COVID-specific resources. Even if there is no reasonable accommodation that will allow the unvaccinated employee to be physically present to perform his or her current job without posing a direct threat, the employer must consider if telework is an option for that particular job as an accommodation and, as a last resort, whether reassignment to another position is possible.
The ADA requires that employers offer an available accommodation if one exists that does not pose an undue hardship, meaning a significant difficulty or expense. See 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(p). Employers are advised to consider all the options before denying an accommodation request. The proportion of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with non-employees, who may be ineligible for a vaccination or whose vaccination status may be unknown, can impact the ADA undue hardship consideration. Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation is available that would not pose an undue hardship.
Under the ADA, it is unlawful for an employer to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.
For more information visit the EEOC’s website. https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws
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