Office Politics

Can Your Employer Require a Covid Vaccine?

We asked a UW health law expert.

By Benjamin Cassidy June 3, 2021

Seattle Google offices exterior

Like many companies, Google is encouraging employees to get vaccinated, but not requiring it. 

It's confusing out there. Washington and King County officials are at odds about whether the vaccinated masses should mask up indoors. Local sports teams are turning down revenue to maintain sparsely populated sections of possibly unvaccinated fans. At least one local restaurant is taking exactly the opposite approach. Ethics, science, politics, and business are colliding as we all await a June 30 reopening that could arrive earlier than that.

But let's clear up one bit of Covid vaccine bewilderment: Yes, employers can require their workers to get vaccinated, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clarified recently.

University of Washington law professor Patricia Kuszler likens this mandate to a drug test, a form of screening many companies have instituted over the years (and one some places are now easing). Basically, if workers want to join, or rejoin, workplaces, employers can make their entry contingent on receiving coronavirus shots.

Private employers will have an easier time tying work to proof of full Covid vaccination. It's a bit more complicated for public workplaces, Kuszler says, noting that government legislation might be necessary to introduce such a policy. Case in point: While UW has already notified students that they need to get vaxxed before fall, no such mandate exists yet for its faculty and staff. (Update: On June 3, the school announced a Covid vaccine requirement for all campus faculty and staff.)

As with other required shots, exemptions are available for vaccine-eligible students, and the same is true for workers. In Washington, these jab passes are medical, religious, or personal/philosophical. Medical is pretty straightforward: A health care provider may attest that someone who has certain underlying medical conditions shouldn't get the shot. There's far more wiggle room with the religious and personal exemptions, the latter of which was waived in 2019 for the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine after the state's largest measles outbreak in decades.

Schools will undoubtedly require Covid-19 vaccines once more kids are eligible for shots, but will employers adopt such policies? Many major companies are publicly encouraging vaccination but not requiring it. Kuszler believes the reluctance of some organizations will "dissipate" if and when the vaccines progress from emergency use authorization to full FDA approval. "I think some people are concerned about the fact that it's not fully FDA approved, so they're avoiding vaccination on that basis," says Kuszler.

If they choose to hold off, employers can offer cash and other incentives to get more of their staffs vaxxed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in its updated guidance.

Until then, office politics will be even more fraught than usual.

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