As the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to rampage across the state and the country, an increasing number of Kentucky businesses are requiring their employees to get vaccinated as a condition of returning to a physical workplace. Understandably, many employees have questioned whether companies have the legal right to impose this mandate.
The short answer is that employers requiring vaccines are within their legal rights. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that federal laws do not prevent an employer from mandating all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19. If an employee refuses to get vaccinated and is fired for that reason, state and federal employment law offers little recourse for the employee.
There are, however, circumstances in which employers may be required to make exceptions to their vaccine mandates. Federal laws, notably Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who do not get the COVID-19 vaccine because of a disability or a religious belief. Similarly, Kentucky state law now bars employers from requiring vaccines for people who object based on a “conscientiously-held religious belief” or a written statement from a doctor that the vaccine would jeopardize the employee’s health.
It is an open question whether an employer must accommodate an employee who refuses to get vaccinated on nonreligious grounds. One of the few rulings on this issue so far came in a federal court case in Houston, where a hospital fired 150 workers for refusing to get vaccinated. The workers alleged the hospital was violating medical ethics by making employees guinea pigs for “experimental and dangerous” vaccines. On June 12, the federal judge dismissed the suit, Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hospital, finding that the employees “were not participants in a human trial” and that the hospital was “trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus.”
In early August, Kentucky’s major hospitals, medical groups and nursing homes announced that they would all require their medical workers to get vaccinated. The announcement was accompanied by a strong statement of support from Gov. Andy Beshear. The health care providers implored other businesses to institute vaccine requirements as well, pointing out that many facilities are again filling up with COVID patients and running out of space. Major companies are in fact requiring their employees to get the vaccine in order to return to physical workplaces.
The employment law attorneys at Hemmer DeFrank Wessels PLLC understand the difficult issues facing employees and employers alike as we all attempt to navigate this pandemic. If you have questions or concerns about the legal aspects of the COVID vaccine, please call our Fort Mitchell office at 859-344-1188 or contact us online anytime.