As workers return to their places of employment, employers must be aware of the pitfalls surrounding mandating COVID-19 vaccines for those returning workers. Employers who adopt such a policy need to understand the obligations that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“the ADA”) imposes on employers. This article will discuss one such obligation: under the ADA, may an employer require a COVID-19 vaccination for all employees entering the workplace, even though it knows that some employees may not get a vaccine because of a disability?
The EEOC has answered that question “yes,” provided certain requirements are met. Under the ADA, an employer may require an individual with a disability to meet a qualification standard applied to all employees, such as a safety-related standard requiring COVID-19 vaccination, if the standard is job-related and consistent with business necessity. If a particular employee cannot meet such a safety-related qualification standard because of a disability, the employer may not require compliance for that employee unless it can demonstrate that the individual would pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of the employee or others in the workplace. A “direct threat” is a “significant risk of substantial harm” that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation. This determination can be broken down into two steps: determining if there is a direct threat; and, if there is, assessing whether a reasonable accommodation would reduce or eliminate the threat.
To determine if an employee who is not vaccinated due to a disability poses a “direct threat” in the workplace, an employer first must make an individualized assessment of the employee’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job. The factors that make up this assessment are: (1) the duration of the risk; (2) the nature and severity of the potential harm; (3) the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and (4) the imminence of the potential harm. The determination that a particular employee poses a direct threat should be based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge about COVID-19. Such medical knowledge may include, for example, the level of community spread at the time of the assessment.
Statements from the CDC provide an important source of current medical knowledge about COVID-19, and the employee’s health care provider, with the employee’s consent, also may provide useful information about the employee. Additionally, the assessment of direct threat should take account of the type of work environment, such as: whether the employee works alone or with others or works inside or outside; the available ventilation; the frequency and duration of direct interaction the employee typically will have with other employees and/or non-employees; the number of partially or fully vaccinated individuals already in the workplace; whether other employees are wearing masks or undergoing routine screening testing; and, the space available for social distancing.
If the assessment demonstrates that an employee with a disability who is not vaccinated would pose a direct threat to self or others, the employer must consider whether providing a reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship, would reduce or eliminate that threat. Potential reasonable accommodations could include requiring the employee to wear a mask, work a staggered shift, making changes in the work environment (such as improving ventilation systems or limiting contact with other employees and non-employees ), permitting telework if feasible, or reassigning the employee to a vacant position in a different workspace.
As a best practice, an employer introducing a COVID-19 vaccination policy and requiring documentation or other confirmation of vaccination should notify all employees that the employer will consider requests for reasonable accommodation based on disability on an individualized basis.
This article discusses only one concern that employers must consider in requiring and enforcing a mandatory vaccination plan. There are several others, involving the ADA and other federal and state civil rights laws. When developing a mandatory vaccination plan, always consult with counsel to ensure that you have a workplace that both safeguards your employees’ health and complies with the law.
If you have questions about this article, or about COVID-19 workplace policies in general, please contact Mike Donner (email@example.com) at 804-377-1267 or Steve Setliff (firstname.lastname@example.org) at 804-377-1261.