As many employers await the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s impending vaccination rule, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission quietly released new guidance regarding religious objections to mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies. While the guidance largely reiterates established standards for assessing religious accommodation requests, it also provides insight into the EEOC’s areas of focus as more employers adopt mandatory vaccination requirements.
To start, the EEOC highlighted that workers have the initial burden of notifying their employers of a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s vaccination requirement. While employees are not required to use specific “magic words” like “religious accommodation” they must notify their employer of the need for an accommodation.
Next, the EEOC clarified that “if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief,” then the employer may make “a limited factual inquiry” and seek additional information from the employee. The guidance does not confirm specifically what type of information the employer may request from the employee, although previous guidance has suggested that an employer may request firsthand explanation from the employee or third-party verification from a church official or member. The EEOC also specifically noted that “Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences.”
Finally, the guidance describes how an employer can show that a religious accommodation would be an “undue hardship.” Under Title VII, an accommodation is an “undue hardship” if it would impose more than a minimal cost on the employer. Costs include both direct monetary costs and also the burden on the employer’s operations, such as risk of the spread of COVID-19. Factors that may be particularly relevant include whether the employee “works outdoors or indoors, works in a solitary group work setting, or has close contact with other employees or members of the public (especially medically vulnerable individuals).” The number of employees seeking a similar accommodation and the cumulative cost thereof are also relevant.