Drew Miller, MJLST Staffer
On December 31, 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic began when the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Chinese office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission regarding cases of “viral pneumonia.” Nearly a year later, despite the protective measures instituted on a global scale to slow the spread, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 1,500,000 people worldwide) and shows no sign of slowing down. All hope is not lost; scientists and biopharmaceutical companies have worked diligently throughout the crisis, and a large-scale vaccination release seems imminent. However, given the prevalence of anti-vaccination sentiment in the United States, it may be difficult to distribute the vaccine to enough people; employer-mandated vaccines likely offer the best chance for widespread vaccination, but the standards governing such mandates remain unclear.
Anti-Vaccination Sentiment in the US
Whether the vaccine will provide outright immunity or simply partial protection, it will regardless be a critical step toward ending the pandemic. However, vaccines are obviously only effective if people agree to get the shot, and that may prove to be a significant barrier in the United States. Vaccine doubt and anti-vaccination movements continue to grow in popularity for a variety of reasons. Social media’s unique ability to bring together like-minded individuals across the globe inevitably results in the creation of insular groups; anti-vaccine support from celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey provide a degree of validation to “regular” people who feel the same way; and general government distrust, which has sharpened considerably under the tumultuous and polarizing Trump presidency, heightens suspicions surrounding FDA testing and approval processes. Finally, as noted by Dr. Paul A. Offit, an infectious disease expert and co-inventor of a vaccine for rotavirus, “Vaccines are a victim of their own success. We have largely eliminated the memory of many diseases.”
Moreover, skepticism regarding the safety and efficacy coronavirus vaccine is not entirely unfounded. The vaccine development process typically takes a decade, whereas this one began under a year ago. A group of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Texas State University anthropology department writes, “If poorly designed and executed, a COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the U.S. could undermine the increasingly tenuous belief in vaccines and the public health authorities that recommend them – especially among people most at risk of COVID-19 impacts.” The results of a poll conducted by Pew Research Center in September indicates the consequences of all these factors: just over half (51%) of U.S. adults definitely or probably would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today—a 21% drop from 72% in May.
With skepticism at an all-time high, the responsibility for raising vaccination rates in the U.S. may fall to employers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) allows employers to legally impose an influenza vaccine requirement on their workers, but there are several requirements and exceptions that make such a mandate more difficult to impose.
First, employees are entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to request medical and disability exemptions. This exemption requires proof of an underlying disability or medical condition that renders an employee essentially unable to safely get the vaccine. Second, employees may also claim religious exemptions to avoid an employer-mandated vaccine. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that an employee must have a “sincerely held religious belief” against vaccination. In 2020, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employee’s “holistic health lifestyle” and personal belief that vaccines are harmful were insufficient to trigger protection under the Civil Rights Act. See Brown v. Children’s Hosp. of Philadelphia, 794 Fed. Appx. 226 (3rd Cir. 2020). The court wrote, “[I]t is not sufficient merely to hold a ‘sincere opposition to vaccination’; rather, the individual must show that the ‘opposition to vaccination is a religious belief.’” Id. (citing Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr. of Southeast Pa., 877 F.3d 487, 490 (3rd Cir. 2017)).
There are two primary standards governing the situations in which employers may legally require vaccinations regardless of religious or medical exemptions. Title VII does not require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for medical or religious reasons if it would pose an undue hardship, which it defines as “more than de minimis cost” to the operation of the business. The ADA standard is stricter, requiring reasonable accommodation barring undue hardship, which it defines as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense.”
Finally, because vaccinations are “medical examinations” under the ADA, the COVID-19 vaccine would need to be deemed “job-related, consistent with business necessity or justified by a direct threat, and no broader or more intrusive than necessary.” Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws in employment, has labeled COVID-19 as a “direct threat” to the workplace and stated that employers are allowed under the ADA to “bar an employee from physical presence in the workplace if he refuses to have his temperature taken or refuses to answer questions about whether he has COVID-19, has symptoms associated with COVID-19, or has been tested for COVID-19,” it has not yet stated whether employers will have the right to make a vaccine mandatory.
As such, the rights of employers to legally impose COVID-19 vaccination requirements on employees are uncertain and, absent clear direction or regulation, will likely require case-by-case analysis to determine the validity of each exemption and the corresponding hardship to business. Consequently, even if employers do have the legal right, protracted legal battles are the only remedy, and given the pervasive fear of vaccinations in today’s social climate, there are likely to be a great many of them. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to ravage the nation.