Following publication of OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccination emergency rule, employers received a large number of request for exemptions from the requirements based on religious objections. Even though those rules have been withdrawn, employers that have mandated vaccinations (including those health care employers covered by the CMS rules) continue to receive requests for religious exemptions.
Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance on how employers should approach and make decisions with regard to such requests. Last week, the EEOC issued an updated questions and answers guidance that made some small but notable changes to the way in which the agency views employers’ obligations to provide accommodations under Title VII.
First, the new guidance continues the EEOC’s prior position that in most circumstances, employers should assume that employees’ purported religious objections to vaccination are sincerely held. The agency does state that purely political or health-based objections to vaccination would not meet this requirement. However, the EEOC says that employees can hold objections that are based on both religious and non-religious reasons, and that such dual objections do not remove them from Title VII’s protections.
Next, the EEOC provides additional explanation of the meaning of undue hardship in the vaccination context. The hardship does not need to be cost-related. If having unvaccinated employees in the workplace creates a significant risk of passing COVID-19 to co-workers or the public, this can be deemed a hardship. If a vaccination exemption request constitutes an undue hardship for the business due to such health risks, the employer should consider alternative arrangements such as remote work or reassignment before denying it.
The EEOC points out that this hardship determination will depend on the nature of the workplace, and the specific risks presented. Any accommodation determination should be documented, and if denied, the business reasons for this conclusion should be clear. While the EEOC appears to discourage employers from denying accommodation based on their view of the sincerity of the employee’s purported beliefs, the agency provides a roadmap for substantively evaluating the cost and impact of granting such exemptions.