New Guidelines On Religious Exemptions to Vaccine Mandates

            According to recently-released data, more than 78 percent of Connecticut’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination, and more than 70 percent of the population is considered “fully vaccinated.”
            By next week, children aged between five and eleven years old will be eligible for a vaccination.
            Connecticut’s numbers put the state well above the national average where just 57.6 percent of the national population is fully vaccinated.
            Many of those folks who have yet to be vaccinated are unlikely to ever voluntarily get the jab, despite the fact that many of those same people face job loss for defying vaccine mandates by their employers or the government itself.
            Many of those who have legally avoided vaccinations to date have done so as a result of a religious objection to the vaccine. But just this week the EEOC has passed new guidelines designed to make it more difficult for religious objectors to avoid employment consequences for refusing the vaccine.
            Title VII of the federal civil rights law requires employers to accommodate employees who object to getting a vaccine based on a “sincerely-held religious belief.” To date, employers have been counseled to avoid challenging the sincerity of an employee’s religious belief except in exceptional circumstances.
            As a result, most claims of a religious objection by employees have resulted in accommodations allowing the employees to avoid getting a vaccine.
            The EEOC still maintains that employers should “generally assume an employee’s religious belief is sincerely held unless there is a basis to question it, in which case the employer may make limited inquiries and seek additional supporting information.”
            However even where an employee can support a sincerely-held religious belief, the EEOC’s new guidance is giving employers more leeway on determining whether or not a reasonable accommodation can be provided without causing “undue hardship” to the employer.
            If a proposed accommodation would cause “undue hardship” to the employer, then the employer need not provide the objecting employee with an exemption from the vaccine mandate.
            Under the new guidance, the EEOC is advising employers that they can define “undue hardship” more broadly than previously counseled. Where a religious accommodation is sought, an undue hardship will be considered one that causes simply more than a de minimis cost.
            Further, the EEOC now says that employers can consider various common and relevant impacts of an accommodation including whether the employee works outdoors or indoors; whether the employee works in a solitary or group work setting; and whether the employee has close contact with other employees, members of the public, or medically-vulnerable individuals.
            Additionally, the employer can take into account the total number of employees who are seeking an accommodation for similar reasons. In other words, the employer can consider the cumulative burden upon it when assessing each individual request for an accommodation.
            The result of the EEOC’s new guidance could be that fewer religious exceptions to mandate requirements are granted by employers.
            Still, it is hard to imagine that employers will be willing or able to take disciplinary action against an employee that refuses a vaccine for religious reasons, not only because it could lead to a lawsuit, but also because the workers could be very difficult to replace, and therefore negatively impact the bottom line.

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