Employers that require their employees to get flu shots must provide exemptions for employees whose religious beliefs forbid vaccinations or risk a lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Saint Vincent Health Center, a hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, recently agreed to pay six former employees $300,000 in back pay and compensatory damages to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed on their behalf by the EEOC.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate applicants’ and employees’ sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of their business. The EEOC has taken an informal position that once an employer receives notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents him or her from taking the influenza vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship.
In the fall of 2013, Saint Vincent Health Center established a policy requiring employees to get a seasonal flu vaccination unless they were granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Employees who were granted an exemption were required to wear a face mask while having contact with patients during flu season, while those who refused the vaccine but were not granted an exemption were fired, according to the EEOC. The EEOC alleged that six employees who requested exemptions on religious grounds were denied, while 14 other employees who requested exemptions on medical grounds were granted their requests.
“While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer’s Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion,” said Philadelphia District regional attorney, Debra M. Lawrence. “In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.”