The United States has reported more than 25 million COVID-19 cases since the viruses’ arrival less than one year ago. Since the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic, drug makers worked feverishly to create a safe, effective COVID vaccine, making it top priority for manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna.
Now that a vaccine is readily available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended a vaccine eligibility schedule to protect some of the country’s most vulnerable. The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 1a were offered to healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities, while Phase 1b made the vaccine available to frontline workers, like first responders, postal workers, grocery store clerks, and those in the educational sector, and people aged 75 years and older.
While vaccine schedules are typically based on age, profession and job type have been a key indicator on when and if you are eligible for the first few rounds of the vaccine distribution. This, in turn, begs the question – “Can my employer require me to get a COVID vaccine?”
Based on guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers have the right to require employees to vaccinate against COVID-19. But just as the pandemic itself, a COVID-19 vaccine requirement isn’t black and white.
ADA-covered employers should consider simply encouraging employees to get the vaccine rather than making it a requirement as employees have the right to claim medical or religious exemption. However, a personal or political belief does not exempt the employee from an employer’s vaccination requirement.
In March 2020, the EEOC came out with revised original 2009 guidance dubbed “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act.” This document includes support for both employers and employees with questions around hiring, traveling, temperature checks, and information requests.
Vaccination Phase 1C will make the vaccine available to people aged 65-74 years, people aged 16-64 with underlying medical conditions, and other essential workers. Essential workers, in this instance, includes workers in the transportation and logistics field, food service professionals, housing construction and finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety, and public health. The CDC has remarked that, “as vaccine availability increases, vaccination recommendations will expand to include more groups.”
One outlying profession that drew much attention in 2020 were professional athletes. Leagues, like the NBA and NFL, created their own requirements for athletes and staff to protect one another and limit the spread. The NBA held their first few games in a “bubble” in Orlando, Florida, and implemented strict health and safety measures, while the NFL fined coaches, players, and sideline staff who failed to wear facial coverings.
The leagues themselves pushed to make sports entertainment available despite the known risks of COVID-19. And while NFL Players Association Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith, said, “No one should be thinking about the vaccine going anywhere other than our first responders and the most vulnerable people right now,” former NBA star Charles Barkley shockingly quipped that players should skip the line and deserve preferential treatment because of the taxes they pay. Barkley’s cohosts were quick to shut down the comment.
If your employer plans to make the COVID vaccine a requirement, then you should expect communication around the policy, as requirements vary by employer. The pandemic remains a priority for world leaders, as does the health and safety of its citizens. Except continuous updates and changes for the foreseeable future on COVID-19 and the virus vaccine.