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Attorney: Employers can require COVID-19 vaccine when workers return in two weeks

However, employees can claim exceptions based on religion and disability discrimination
Updated: May. 11, 2021 at 7:00 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - The countdown is on.

In less than two weeks, workers across Michigan will be able to return to their offices for work. The state reached the first benchmark on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Vacc to Normal plan on Monday, when 55% of adults age 16 or older received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

With the impending return of all employees required to work at home for the past 13 months, the question has been raised of whether companies can require employees to get vaccinated.

The short answer to this is yes, according to Flint attorney. But there are exceptions for employees against disability discrimination and religious discrimination.

“If an employee goes unvaccinated and that poses a direct threat to employees, the employer can mandate as a term and condition of employment that they get vaccinated,” said Flint labor attorney Dean Yeotis.

He pointed out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified COVID-19 as a direct threat in the workplace.

If a disabled person still cannot be vaccinated, employers are required to first provide reasonable accommodations to the employee. This may include working from home longer or working in another part of the building away from other workers.

“Any accommodation has to be looked at from both sides, and the law does say that the accommodation request doesn’t have to be granted if it poses an undue hardship for the employer,” Yeotis said.

Another factor employers will have to consider is if someone’s religious background prevents them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The religion has to be what they call a bona fide religious reason, which basically means a sincerely held belief in a somewhat recognized formal religion,” Yeotis said.

He said HIPAA health care privacy laws apply in both disability and religious contexts, but how far an employer takes their inquiry into the reasoning behind someone’s decision not to get the vaccine can lay the groundwork for potential legal action.

Yeotis said employers can require proof of vaccination. So anyone heading back to work in a couple weeks should make a phone call first so they’re prepared the first day back.

After the coronavirus pandemic sent millions of Americans to home offices, a recent study shows that more than 80% of people don’t want to got back to the office or they would prefer a hybrid schedule of working from home at least part-time.

A survey from the Harvard Business School Online shows that many professionals experienced advancement and growth at home this year:

  • 51% of employees are uncomfortable going back to the office until they’re fully vaccinated.
  • 71% are hesitant to go back until everyone is fully vaccinated.
  • 54% expect social distancing with everyone seated at least 6 feet apart and required to wear masks.

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