As the rate of COVID-19 cases continues to trend downward in most parts of the country, and employers begin to relax mask policies and encourage employees’ return to the office, COVID-19-related issues remain at the forefront — including employee vaccination status. On March 1, 2022, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its COVID-19 guidance regarding religious objections to employer vaccine requirements.
What to know about religious accommodation requirements
- Employees are required to tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to a vaccine requirement because of a conflict between that requirement and their sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices or observances. Employees need not use “magic words,” such as “accommodation,” but they need to explain the conflict and the religious basis for it.
- Employers should generally assume that a religious accommodation request is based on sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices or observances. Employers can make a limited factual inquiry and/or seek supporting information if they have an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or sincerity of a belief.
- Importantly, Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views or personal preferences. That means that objections to a vaccination requirement based purely on such concerns — including possible vaccine side effects — do not qualify as religious beliefs under Title VII. However, the EEOC cautions that overlap between religious and political views does not place an employee’s view outside the scope of Title VII protection. Employers should evaluate religious objections on a case-by-case basis.
- Where an employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious belief without an undue hardship on its operations, Title VII does not require it to provide accommodation. The EEOC warns that the assumption that more employees might seek religious accommodation to the vaccination requirement in the future is not evidence of an undue hardship. An employer may, however, consider the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees.
- Employers should consider all possible alternatives (including telework and reassignment) when determining whether exempting an employee from a vaccination requirement would impose an undue hardship, and may rely on CDC recommendations when doing so. When assessing whether exempting employees would impact workplace safety, employers should consider the following:
- Type of workplace and nature of employee’s duties
- Location in which employee must or can perform duties
- Number of fully-vaccinated employees
- Number of employees who physically enter the workplace
- Number of employees who will need particular accommodation
We suggest employers reach out to their employment counsel to discuss unique situations as they arise to ensure compliance with the law.