Now that the Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA approval, more and more employers are implementing mandatory vaccine policies, especially in light of the nationwide surge in infections due to the Delta variant. Most employers know they may need to make reasonable accommodations to the mandatory vaccine plan under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but employers also need to be aware of and prepared to address an employee’s religious objection to a COVID-19 vaccine. Navigating requested religious accommodations is similar, but different than the ADA requirements.
The threshold inquiry to any employee’s request for a religious accommodation under Title VII is whether the employee has a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance which prevents them from receiving the vaccine. Under federal law, sincerely held religious beliefs “include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that an employee can get a free pass just because they personally or philosophically do not agree with receiving the vaccine. The U.S. Supreme Court distinguishes religious beliefs from personal beliefs that are “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical.”
It can be difficult to differentiate religious beliefs from personal ones. You should generally assume that an employee’s stated religious belief is sincerely held unless you have a good faith and objective basis for questioning the religious nature or the sincerity of the stated belief. This question might be properly triggered, for example, if the employee recently adopted this belief system in response to your vaccine mandate, or acquired a “religious certification” from a “church” they found online.
If the employee’s purported reason is based on their distrust of the vaccine or a philosophical news article they read online, that will likely not rise to the level of “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Don’t make this assumption, however; instead, pose your questions through an interactive process with the employee in which you may be able to – in some circumstances – request additional information or documentation from the employee.
If you conclude that the employee’s objection to the mandate is (or could be) grounded in an actual sincerely-held religious belief, that doesn’t mean the employee automatically skips the vaccine and resumes work as normal. The second step is to engage in what’s known as “the interactive process.” You are allowed to – and should – engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee to determine what reasonable accommodation, if any, may be suitable.
Part of this process may entail requesting further information from the employee regarding their faith system in order to determine whether it is, in fact, a sincerely held religious belief. Beyond that, you should tailor specific questions to your employee to address the unique circumstances involved.
Your interactive process should be well documented so you can clearly prove the steps you took. This includes initially providing the employee with a reasonable accommodation request form, documenting the interactive process, and ultimately documenting any reasonable accommodations offered to and accepted/rejected by the employee. Whenever possible, one person or team of people should handle all such requests to ensure consistent treatment of all. You should also train your managers to recognize requests for religious accommodation and forward these requests immediately to the appropriate person or team.
Once you have all the information, your final step is making a decision on how to respond to the request. There are a few key principles you should understand before going further:
You may conclude there are no accommodations that are reasonable in nature that you can offer the employee, or that any accommodations they identify would cause an undue hardship.
Even if one or more reasonable accommodations are identified, you are not obligated to provide the specific accommodation requested by the employee if you identify and offer them an effective alternative.
Don’t feel locked into whatever choice you end up making. You could grant an accommodation request and soon realize it’s not workable for some objective reason (that you also document). The law permits you to revisit accommodation requests and adjust as necessary.
You also should take into account your particular work environment. Reasonable accommodations in this context may include requiring the employee to wear a mask at all times, weekly or biweekly COVID-19 testing, working at a social distance from other employees, a reassignment to another vacant and available position, unpaid leave, or a combination of these options. Take the employee’s input into account and make a decision about which accommodation(s) you will provide.
If the employee refuses all options you offer to them, you may have no choice but to exclude them from the workplace. You might also consider placing them on an unpaid leave of absence until pandemic circumstances change and permit the safe return of unvaccinated workers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly under the current pandemic circumstances, you must determine whether the specific accommodation request made by the employee or the accommodation request you n identify causes an undue hardship.
The determination of whether a specific request would pose an undue hardship is fact-specific and may change depending on the number of individuals making accommodation requests (religious or medical).
If you determine that the particular accommodation requested by the employee will cause an undue hardship and are unable to find an alternative accommodation through the interactive process, the next step may be to consider placing the employee on an unpaid leave of absence or separation of employment.
Schwartz Rollins will continue to monitor the rules and government guidance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Our firm has an inventory of sample policies and public accommodations requests that can be tailored to your business, including a Mandatory Vaccination Policy, Non-mandatory Vaccination Policy, Accommodation Procedure for COVID-19 Vaccine, and requests for exemption based on medical or religious reasons. If you need our assistance in crafting a legally complaint policy, we are here to assist you. Please contact one of our attorneys at Schwartz Rollins, or our legal assistant, Vicki Perry at 404.844.4130.