Vaccination mandates: accommodation of exemptions from disability and religious belief

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October 11, 2021
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Linda gallagher



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As the COVID-19 public health emergency continues, vaccination mandates have been imposed in public and private workplaces. These mandates include federal, state, and local requirements for some employees to be fully immunized or at risk of losing their jobs. This blog discusses the process of handling and supporting requests for medical and religious exemptions related to disability from vaccine requirements.

Vaccination mandates

Here’s a look at the different vaccination mandates impacting many workers in Washington.

Federal

The federal government recently released vaccination mandates, link here, for most federal workers, healthcare workers, and federal contractors, as well as private and public workplaces with 100 or more employees.

State

At the state level, Proclamation 21-14 (August 9, 2021) requires healthcare workers, including some local government employees, to be fully immunized (two weeks after the final vaccination) by October 18 . This ordinance also applies to long-term care workers. and most civil servants. Exemptions may be granted to people with medical reasons related to the disability or reasons of sincere religious belief, but there is no opt-out option for employees to take regular COVID tests instead of vaccinations.

Proclamation 21-14.1 (August 20, 2021) clarified and expanded vaccine requirements. This ordinance also made additional changes, such as clarifications regarding the vaccination of entrepreneurs. Proclamation 21-14.2 (September 27, 2021) updated state immunization requirements to include on-site contractors who contract with designated state agencies. The governor also encouraged local governments to implement similar vaccination requirements for their employees.

Local

A number of local governments have recently adopted their own vaccine mandates. Cities with vaccination mandates include Bellevue, Bellingham and Shoreline. Sample policies and forms are available on our webpage: COVID-19 Operations and Personnel Issues.

What is reasonable accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way work is done that allows a person in need of accommodation to benefit from the same employment opportunities. Reasonable accommodation can be changes to a position, work environment, policy, practice or procedure. An employer may also consider providing additional personal protective equipment (PPE), changing the location of a workspace, adding social distancing, or creating different shift assignments. Telecommuting can also be considered a reasonable accommodation in certain situations, depending on an employee’s duties and their employer’s policies.

According to the EEOC guidelines (section K.6):

Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about meeting the employer’s immunization requirements should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know who to direct the request to for a full review. As a good practice, an employer introducing a COVID-19 vaccination policy and requiring documentation or other vaccination confirmation should inform all employees that the employer will consider requests for reasonable accommodation based on a disability or religious belief on an individualized basis.

Disabilities and religious beliefs are two reasons why accommodations would be considered and, where appropriate, provided to an employee upon request and after an interactive process between an employee and an employer, often through a human resources representative. Reasonable accommodation was required by law long before the current COVID-19 pandemic and resulting vaccination mandates.

Legal requirements are found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) and other applicable law.

What is the process for reviewing a request for a reasonable accommodation?

Anyone eligible for a disability medical or religious belief exemption may request a reasonable accommodation assessment. The reasonable accommodation assessment is a flexible interactive process with an exchange of information between an employee and his employer.

This process takes into account the position of an employee, the business needs of the employer and the business needs of a covered contractor on site (if applicable). The accommodation requested by an employee need not be granted if it would cause undue hardship to an employer in terms of hardship or significant expense. This is a complex legal area, and all employers are encouraged to work closely with their lawyers to adopt compliant policies and procedures, especially with regard to coronavirus vaccines and reasonable accommodation.

Under current workplace vaccination mandates, if a worker is entitled to reasonable disability-related accommodation or accommodation for sincere religious belief, then the worker is exempt from the vaccine requirement and reasonable accommodation should. be considered and made available by the employer if there is no undue hardship incurred to provide it.

Disability / Medical exemptions

Medical conditions or disabilities that could exempt people from COVID-19 vaccinations may include allergic reactions to vaccinations, pregnancy conditions, or certain chronic illnesses or other disabilities as determined by an employee’s health care provider. To the extent permitted by law, employers can obtain medical documents from workers requesting disability-related accommodations. According to EEOC guidelines:

If this is not obvious or already known, an employer may ask questions or request medical documents to determine whether the employee’s disability requires accommodation, one requested or another. Possible questions for the employee may include: (1) how the disability creates a limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively resolve the limitation, (3) whether another form of accommodation could effectively resolve the problem, and (4) how a proposed accommodation will allow the employee to continue to perform the “essential functions” of their position (ie the fundamental duties of the position).

Religious exemptions

Exemptions granted on the basis of sincere religious beliefs, practices or observances would allow employees to continue working without being vaccinated.

Title VII defines “religion” as including “all aspects of religious observance and practice as well as of belief”, not just those practices which are mandated or prohibited by a principle of the faith of the individual. . Social, political or economic philosophies and simple personal preferences are not “religious” beliefs within the meaning of Title VII. However, it is not easy to distinguish a religious belief from other types of beliefs. In Thomas v. Rev. Bd., 450 US 707, 714 (1981), the Supreme Court of the United States stated:

Determining what is a “religious” belief or practice is often a difficult and delicate task. . . . However, the resolution of this issue should not be based on a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs do not need to be acceptable, logical, consistent, or understandable to others to merit First Amendment protection.

Employers can inquire about the sincerity or religious nature of an employee’s beliefs during the assessment of a religious belief exemption request. The EEOC Religious Accommodation Compliance Manual includes the following guidelines for employers regarding allegations of religious discrimination:

An employee who does not cooperate with an employer’s reasonable request to verify the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer has improperly refused an accommodation.

However, a person’s sincere religious belief does not need to follow the tenets of any particular religion. For example, just because a particular church has encouraged its members to receive COVID-19 vaccines, an individual member may hold a sincere religious belief to the contrary. EEOC guidelines include:

[T]The employer should normally assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on sincere religious belief, practice or observance. However, if an employee requests religious accommodation and an employer is aware of facts which provide an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or sincerity of a particular belief, practice or observance, the employer would be justified in request additional support information.

Confidentiality of protected information

Employers are required to keep confidential information shared by an employee or that an employee has requested reasonable accommodation, whether for reasons related to disability / medical issues or religious beliefs.

Under the ADA, it is illegal for an employer to disclose that an employee has reasonable accommodation or to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. The Public Records Act (PRA) also protects information that indicates an employee’s religious beliefs or affiliations (see RCW 42.56.235).

I suggest that employers, their supervisors and human resources representatives work closely with their lawyers regarding the processing of requests for exemptions and accommodations and the management of the files associated with these requests.

MRSC Resources

Additional resources


MRSC is a private, non-profit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible Washington State government agencies can use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, political, or financial questions.

About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined the MRSC in 2017. Previously, she was Senior Assistant Attorney for King County and Deputy Attorney General.

Linda’s experience in municipal law includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers’ compensation, eminent domain, vehicle registration, law enforcement, corrections and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington Law School.

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