can my company require employees to get the Covid vaccine? — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

My employer just issued a company-wide Covid vaccination mandate requiring all employees to get the vaccine. Is this legal?

I work in an office setting. Some positions do field work, but this is not a public-facing environment. My job can be done entirely remotely and this has been proven, but my company still is resistant to telecommuting. I’m not saying I am anti-vaccine, but I think people should be free to make their own decisions when it comes to their bodies and health so this feels like a serious overstep.

Employers can legally require vaccines — of all kinds, not just Covid vaccines — as long as the requirement is job-related and “consistent with business necessity.”

“Business necessity” can mean that unvaccinated employees would pose a direct threat to other employees, customers, or the general public. In the context of Covid, it would hard to argue that applies to someone who’s fully remote, but probably not terribly hard to make that argument for people who work around others.

As with most things, in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Civil Rights Act, employers have to make exceptions for disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs. In that case, though, the employer could require other precautions instead (like wearing a mask and distancing, working from home, or working separately from others).

Also, some states have introduced legislation that would prohibit employers from requiring vaccines (mostly, but not entirely, in response to flu shot requirements), but none of those bills have passed into law yet.

(For the sake of thoroughness: I’ve seen a few people arguing that the Covid vaccine can’t be mandated while it’s still under “emergency use authorization” [EUA] because the federal statute governing EUAs says people must be informed that they have the option to accept or refuse a vaccine. But the majority of legal opinions I’ve read disagree with that and instead treat the Covid vaccine like any other. Some have noted that the statute’s language means the government can’t force the public to receive a vaccine, not that private employers can’t  make vaccination a condition of employment.)

Anyway, right now, you mainly see vaccination mandates in fields like health care (where flu shots, for example, have long been commonly required). But given the havoc Covid has wreaked and is continuing to wreak, we’re likely to see employers in other fields decide they have a business interest in requiring or strongly encouraging it.

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