Last week, the calendar officially turned to winter. While the weather has been uncharacteristically balmy in the Northeast, soon temperatures will plunge and cold and flu season will arrive. In New Jersey, two employees who were terminated from their jobs after declining work-issued immunizations have brought suit claiming that the termination was nothing more than discrimination on religious grounds.
The two plaintiffs were employees of a faith-based social services agency in South Jersey. The agency, which provides nursing home service, mandated the immunizations in light of their dealings with elderly and infirmed clients. In lieu of submitting to the shot, the employees, who did not directly interact with client, were offered the alternative arrangement of wearing a surgical mask at all times. The suit argues that a mask requirement is unnecessarily punitive and is not a reasonable accommodation of the terminated employees’ religious beliefs.
This is merely the latest salvo in an increasingly common struggle. Vaccination rates in workplaces have risen as companies have realized that the cost of the vaccinations far outweighs lost production time from sick days. In addition, a provision of the Affordable Care Act ties some Medicare reimbursements to employee vaccination rates.
So how should your company approach the issue? First, review your handbook and if a written policy is not contained in it, make arrangements for an update. In the policy, be sure to set forth a detailed procedure by which individuals can seek an exemption on protected grounds. Finally, have a plan to have these requests reviewed by individuals familiar with the applicant’s job duties.
While inoculation policies have decided benefits for your company, a clear policy on exemptions can obviate the need for litigation later.