EEOC Updates Guidance on Religious Accommodations to COVID Vaccines

Nov 03, 2021   Print PDF

By Krista Nelson Slosburg | Related Practice: Employment

Category: Covid-19

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission continues to update its guidance about COVID in the workplace in its publication “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws”. The most recent updates, from October 25 and October 28, 2021, add detail about employers’ obligations with respect to employee requests to skip the COVID-19 vaccine on the basis of religious observance or belief. Key points in the updated guidance are outlined below. A full discussion of the accommodation process and principles is available in our firm’s earlier article from August 24, 2021.  COVID 19 Vaccine Card

  • An employer is not required to grant all requests for religious accommodation simply because it granted one or some such requests. (Question L.4.)
  • An employer is not required to grant the accommodation preferred by an employee if there are other possible accommodations that also are effective in eliminating the religious conflict. (Question L.5.)
  • An employer may reconsider or change a religious accommodation at a later date, even if it granted the accommodation when first requested. (Question L.6.)
  • There are no “magic words” required to request a religious accommodation, but an employee does need to notify their employer of the reason they are asking for an exception to a vaccination requirement; for example, that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. (Question L.1.)
  • An employer generally should assume that a request is based on sincerely held religious beliefs, however, “if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information. An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.” (Question L.2.)
  • An employer can show that an accommodation would impose “undue hardship” based on factors including:
    • direct monetary costs
    • burden of the accommodation on the conduct of the employer’s business, including the risk of spreading COVID to other employees or to the public
    • impairment of workplace safety
    • diminished efficiency in other jobs
    • causing co-workers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work
    • the cumulative cost or burden on the employer, based on the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation.  (Question L.3.)
  • The case-by-case assessment of “undue hardship” with respect to COVID-19 vaccine accommodations will frequently include considering:
    • whether the employee requesting accommodation works inside or outside
    • whether the employee requesting accommodation works in a solitary or group setting
    • whether the employee requesting accommodation has close contact with other employees or members of the public, particularly medically vulnerable individuals,
    • the cumulative cost or burden on the employer, based on the number of employees who are seeking a similar accommodation.   (Question L.3.)
Even for employers who do not currently require vaccination may soon need to understand and navigate accommodation requests. Employers with 100 or more employees are awaiting the anticipated OSHA rule that will implement President Biden’s vaccine mandate for those employers. Employers who will be subject to the mandate should start thinking about how they will approach exemption requests, and can reach out to any member of the Stokes Lawrence employment group with questions.

This document is intended to provide you with general information regarding employer mandates. The contents of this document are not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have any questions about the contents of this document or if you need legal advice as to an issue, please contact the attorneys listed or your regular Stokes Lawrence, P.S. attorney. This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions. For assistance complying with the masking and mandatory vaccine proclamations or for help with other issues of COVID in the workplace, contact a member of Stokes Lawrence’s employment group.