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EEOC Settlement of Flu Vaccine Mandate Shows Effect of New Religious Discrimination Standard

    Client Alerts
  • January 25, 2024

As flu and other respiratory virus rates peak across the U.S., hospitals and other health care providers are responding by taking measures such as limiting patient visitors. For years, one element of this response has included requiring employees to obtain flu vaccinations. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some workers objected to this requirement on religious grounds, asking for an exemption to the mandate. Under the legal standard in place before last year, hospitals generally prevailed on claims challenging their denials of these exemption requests. The public health threat posed by exposure to influenza met the de minimus standard for demonstrating an undue hardship.

Last year in its Groff v. DeJoy decision, the U.S. Supreme Court changed this legal standard for evaluating religious accommodation requests under Title VII. Instead of requiring employers to prove a de minimus burden arising from the request, they now must show an undue hardship similar to that needed to reject accommodation requests under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The effects of this decision are beginning to show in litigation over religious accommodation requests. Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it had settled a lawsuit filed against a Michigan healthcare system that allegedly rescinded a job offer to an applicant who requested a religious exemption from the employer’s flu shot mandate. After the employer denied this request, the EEOC sued on the applicant’s behalf.

In addition to paying $50,000, the employer agreed to only deny exemption requests if they pose an undue hardship on the business. This requires an individual analysis of each worker’s situation and threats posed to patients and co-workers. An employee in an administrative role with no patient dealings may not create the same risk of infection as a clinical worker with direct patient contact.

This settlement demonstrates the need for employers to revisit policies that uniformly screen out applicants or employees based on a qualifying factor. If that employee requests an exemption from the requirement based on religion or disability, the employer must conduct an individualized analysis and make a reasoned decision using the particular facts of that situation. While this settlement does not mean that health care employers cannot mandate vaccines in some circumstances, the days of imposing blanket rules and terminating employees who do not comply are gone.

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