As more workplaces consider mandatory vaccination policies, and with OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard expected to be released any day now that will further mandate vaccinations for employers with 100 or more employees, the EEOC has updated its guidance on how to deal with religious exemption requests.
Much of the guidance incorporates prior statements from the EEOC in various contexts. In that way, there is not much that is “new”. However, what is new is the straightforward language that the EEOC uses here as well as some of the specific references to the COVID-19 vaccination.
Here are the key points provided by the EEOC.
- An employee must tell their employer if they are requesting a COVID-19 vaccination exemption that is based on a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, or practices and the vaccination requirement. Notably, according to the EEOC, the employee is not required to use any magic words such as “religious accommodation” when making this request. However, the employee needs to inform the employer that there is a conflict between the vaccination requirement and his or her sincerely held religious beliefs. Additionally, if the employee has a religious conflict with getting a specific vaccine and wishes to wait until an alternative version or brand is available, these same principles apply. The employer should also provide information to employees and applicants about whom to contact, and the process for requesting a religious accommodation.
- If the employer has an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or sincerity of a specific belief, the EEOC guidance states that an employer is justified in making a narrow factual inquiry, and is allowed to seek additional supporting information from the employee. If the employee fails to cooperate with this reasonable request, the employee risks losing any future claim that the employer wrongly denied an accommodation. An employer should not assume that a request is invalid solely because the religious belief is unfamiliar, and an employee asked to explain the religious nature of their belief should not assume that their employer knows or understands it. Additionally, because Title VII does not protect social, political, economic, or personal preferences, objections to a COVID-19 vaccination based on those preferences and nonreligious practices do not qualify as religious beliefs under Title VII.
- Requiring an employer to bear more than the “de minimus” or minimal cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship on the employer. However, the EEOC reaffirms that the employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable options to accommodate an employee, including telework and reassigning the employee. The determination of whether a request will impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business depends on the specific factual context of each case, and the employer may choose which accommodation to offer when there is more than one reasonable accommodation that would resolve the conflict without causing undue hardship. Additionally, the employer should explain to the employee why the requested or preferred accommodation is being denied.
- An employer can discontinue a previously granted accommodation request if it is no longer being utilized for religious purposes, or if the accommodation later poses an undue hardship on the employer’s operations because its circumstances changed. The employer should discuss these changes with the employee before revoking it, and consider alternatives that would not cause undue hardship.
Employers in the midst of rolling out a mandatory vaccination policy should review the entire guidance to ensure compliance. As always, seek out employment counsel to discuss any challenging exemption requests and when crafting a policy as well.