EEOC Targets Michigan Hospital Over Alleged Violation of Flu Shot Requirements

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit against Mercy Health St. Mary’s, a hospital located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, over allegations that it violated federal law by denying a job applicant’s request to be excused from a generally applicable flu shot requirement. The lawsuit, which seeks monetary relief for the applicant and an injunction that would bar the hospital from engaging in similar alleged conduct going forward, underscores the importance of employers reasonably accommodating employee religious beliefs and disabilities.

Background on Title VII and the ADA

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers must reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of applicants and employees unless doing so would create an undue hardship. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to reasonably accommodate applicants and employees who have a disability, as defined by the statute. Violating either of these laws can result in costly lawsuits and a damaged reputation for the employer.

The EEOC has long advised employers to encourage, rather than require, their employees to get the flu vaccine. While employers may have legitimate reasons for wanting their employees to get vaccinated (e.g., to reduce the chances of an outbreak among patients in a healthcare setting), a blanket vaccination requirement that unduly limits requests for religious or disability-related accommodations can violate federal law.

The dangers of blanket vaccination requirements

As illustrated by the lawsuit against Mercy Health St. Mary’s, blanket vaccination requirements can unduly restrict employees’ religious and disability rights. Even in employment settings where a vaccination requirement makes more sense in light of the increased risk of exposure and transmission (like healthcare settings), employers should engage in a good-faith, interactive process of determining whether a reasonable accommodation is possible whenever a disability-based or religious exemption is sought.

Alternative options for getting the flu vaccine

There are several potential accommodations for employees who cannot or do not want to get a flu vaccine. The Job Accommodation Network suggests that employers permit employees to wear a mask instead of getting vaccinated, use other types of personal protective equipment, or temporarily assign job duties that do not require vaccination. Employers may also consider reassignment to a position that does not require vaccination if other accommodation options are not feasible.

In conclusion, the safest route for employers to take is to encourage, rather than require, their employees to get a flu shot. While it may not be possible to accommodate every employee’s religious or disability-related objections to the vaccine, employers should make a good-faith effort to explore reasonable accommodations and engage in an interactive process with their employees. By doing so, employers can reduce the chances of a costly lawsuit and foster a work environment that is sensitive to the needs of all employees.

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