Does it make business sense to require Florida employees get the flu shot?
Although health officials may be urging Floridians to get vaccinated, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been taking an aggressive stance on this issue. Recently the EEOC filed a lawsuit against an employer after it rescinded a job offer after the job applicant refused to get a flu shot because it was against her religion.
The applicant applied for (and received an employment offer for) a position as a medical transcriptionist. The employer required all employees have the influenza shot or spray. The applicant said that getting a flu shot was against her religion, and she offered to wear a mask, which was allowed as an alternative under company policy.
The company only allowed the mask as an alternative for medical reasons, not religious reasons. The applicant filed a charge of discriminations, claiming religious discrimination, and the EEOC found that the employer violated the law. When the EEOC was unable to have the employer settle the matter in such a way agreeable to the EEOC, this federal agency sued the employer for religious discrimination.
Can we force employees to get a flu shot?
Many Florida employers are concerned about their employees spreading the flu. Can they mandate all employees get the flu vaccine?
Most of us in Florida are aware that this has been a severe flu season, with many people being hospitalized during this year's flu season.
Even more recently an employer was sued by the Justice Department for a similar incident. There, the government alleged in the lawsuit that the employer discriminated against the employee by failing to accommodate her religious beliefs when she sought an exemption to the employer's requirement of a flu vaccine. The lawsuit alleges that the company policy at the time required a flu vaccine but provided a religious exemption for employees who could produce a written statement from their clergy leader supporting the request. This employee requested a religious exemption from the flu shot requirement because of her sincerely held religious belief that Bible-based scriptures prohibited flu shots. However, this employee could not provide the requested clergy letter, because she did not belong to a church or an organized religion. When the business denied the employee's request for a religious exemption, she submitted to the flu shot, despite her religious objections, because she was told that her refusal would result in her termination.
The lawsuit alleges that the business's policy permitting only employees who could obtain a letter from a clergy member to receive a religious accommodation violated Title VII. The policy on its face denied religious accommodations to employees, like this one, who do not belong to churches with clergy leaders. The lawsuit also alleges that the employer unlawfully denied the employee a reasonable accommodation of her religious objection to the flu shot by denying her a request for an exemption without the requisite showing that doing so would cause an undue hardship. Through this lawsuit, the federal government is seeking compensatory damages for the employee, in addition to injunctive and other relief.
In January 2018 another employer paid $89,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit after firing three workers who requested religious exemptions to flu shots.
As a reminder, a business is covered by Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination if the business has 15 or more employees who worked for the employer for at least twenty calendar weeks (in this year or last).
If you need any assistance in relation to analyzing handling such accommodation requests, please email the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. or call us at 1-772-465-5111 before you take that action to make sure that it is legal.
You can read more of our employment law articles on our legal updates page.
If you know a Florida business owner or Florida human resources professional who would find this article interesting, please share it with one click to social media or email.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the employer’s conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees against discrimination based on religion, and requires employers to provide employees with reasonable accommodations to allow them to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Case No. 2:18-cv-10523). The EEOC is seeking an injunction to prohibit the company from engaging in this type of discrimination in the future, as well as monetary relief on the behalf of the victim.
The EEOC lawsuit did not identify the applicant’s religion, but says she “has a sincerely-held religious belief that, as a follower of Jesus Christ, she cannot inject or ingest foreign substances in her body and must rely on natural methods for health.”
This aggressive position by the EEOC reminds employers that company-mandated flu shots and other vaccines may violate some religious beliefs.