On October 25, 2021, the EEOC updated its COVID-19 Technical Assistance to specifically address religious objections to employer vaccine mandates. The update provides employers with additional guidance regarding their Title VII obligation to accommodate employees who request exceptions to vaccination requirements based upon religious beliefs. Key updates in Section L. Vaccinations – Title VII and Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates include the following:
- Employees must tell their employer if they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement based upon a “sincerely held religious belief.” Employers should inform employees about proper procedures for requesting such an exception, and employees need not use any “magic words” to express the request.
- An employer should normally assume a request for religious accommodation is based upon a sincerely held religious belief. However, if there is an objective basis for questioning the religious nature or sincerity of an employee’s belief, an employer may seek additional information. An employee who fails to cooperate with a reasonable request for additional information jeopardizes a later claim that they were improperly denied an accommodation.
- Title VII protects nontraditional religious beliefs, but it does not protect social, political, or economic views or personal preferences. Objections to COVID-19 vaccination requirements that are based on these views or nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.
- An employer may consider factors bearing on an employee’s credibility when assessing the sincerity of the employee’s stated religious belief, including the consistency of the employee’s prior actions, the timing of a request, etc. The employer may also ask for an explanation of how the employee’s religious belief conflicts with the employer’s vaccination requirement.
- If an employer shows it is unable to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs without suffering “undue hardship,” it is not obligated to provide the accommodation under Title VII. Requiring the employer to bear more than a “de minimis” cost constitutes an undue hardship. Such costs can include direct monetary costs, as well as an indirect burden on the employer’s business, including the risk of spreading COVID-19 to other employees or members of the public. Undue hardship must be assessed based upon specific facts of each situation.
- An employer who grants some employees a religious accommodation from a vaccine requirement for religious reasons is not required to grant the same accommodation to all employees. The determination is made on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, an employer need not grant the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there is another that would resolve the conflict between the vaccination requirement and the religious belief.
If an exception is granted, employers should put in place measures to protect the unvaccinated employee, other employees, and the public, as noted in Section K.6 of the EEOC guidance. Possible accommodations include wearing of face masks, frequent COVID-19 testing, change in work location or duties.
Employers who receive employee requests for exceptions to vaccination requirements based upon religious beliefs should work closely with HR and legal counsel to assess their accommodation obligations under Title VII.
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