As employers await the new rule for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations by the Occupational Safety Hazards Act (OSHA) as part of the Coronavirus Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), confusion is mounting for businesses struggling to navigate the Religious Exemption employees may choose to take to avoid vaccination.

The new rule, requiring all businesses with 100 or more employees vaccinate their workforce or produce weekly negative test results before any unvaccinated employees can come to work, is part of the “Path Out of the Pandemic” plan – estimated to impact 80 million workers, or two-thirds of the country’s workforce. Employers who ignore the new standard could face OSHA citations and penalties of up to $14,000 per violation.

A Dilemma for Employers

The right to seek a religious exemption originates with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects workers from discrimination based on religion, among other things. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says employers must provide reasonable accommodations for workers who have sincerely held religious beliefs – unless doing so poses an undue hardship.

Even though, to date, there are no major religions opposing the COVID-19 vaccine, many employees around the country are fighting back against a mandate and have, or plan to, use the Religious Exemption to exercise their religious freedom in refusing to get vaccinated.

Employer Guidance Regarding Religious Exemption from the COVID-19 Vaccination

While the right to claim this exemption is clear, the employer has responsibilities that may override this claim. Here are some employment approaches to consider:

  • Employees cannot jeopardize the health and safety of another employee, even if that risk may appear to an unvaccinated employee as minimal.
  • While it is true that an employer must make “a reasonable accommodation” for religious beliefs, an employer decides what the accommodation will be.
  • Giving unpaid leave to unvaccinated workers while a workplace risk exists appears to be an approach many employers are taking to satisfy the law without permanent employee termination.
  • Educating employees with fact-based information is always advisable to help dispel and counteract misinformation. For example, the COVID-19 vaccination does not contain any fetal tissue. For decades, the pharmaceutical industry has used old fetal cell lines during research and development, as is the case with the coronavirus vaccine and many common over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol, ibuprofen, Claritin, and Tums – to name a few.
  • If 100% vaccinations are out the question, weekly COVID tests on the unvaccinated should be easy to take, and report, so that workplace efficiencies are maintained along with the health and safety of others.
  • Employers can legally question the validity of a religious exemption, many of which are based on false information. However, this approach has a judgmental assessment, which can lead to unintended morale problems affecting other employees.

See our other helpful blog on this topic: EMPLOYER UPDATE | Managing New Government COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates

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