New EEOC Guidance Helps Employers Navigate Religious Exemptions To Vaccine Policies

Vial of COVID-19 Vaccine

On October 25, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its employer guidance regarding COVID-19, “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws,” by adding Section L, which addresses questions relating to vaccination requirements in the context of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and religious accommodations.

As employers contend with an increasing number of religious accommodation requests stemming from vaccine policies, the new information sheds light on the EEOC’s position and gives companies the ability to factor the EEOC’s guidance into their decision-making.

Important elements from the EEOC’s updated COVID-19 technical assistance:

  • Employees must inform their employer if they need an exception to COVID-19 vaccine requirements due to a conflict with a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. Employees need not use magic words such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.”
  • Employers should assume a religious accommodation request by an employee is based on a sincerely held religious belief. However, an employer is permitted to make a limited factual inquiry as to the religious basis of the request or the employee’s sincerity where the Employer has an objective basis to doubt it. While what qualifies as a religion under Title VII can be broad, Title VII does not protect “social, political or economic views, or personal preferences.” The guidance sets forth several factors which, either alone or in combination may potentially undermine an employee’s credibility.
  • An Employer is to consider possible alternative accommodations, such as telework and reassignments, when determining if an accommodation can be provided without undue hardship and refers Employers to Section K.6 of the guidance for additional available accommodations. The EEOC emphasized that Employers can rely on the CDC recommendations when evaluating whether accommodations would pose an undue hardship.
  • When an Employer would suffer an undue hardship (more than a de minimis cost or burden under Title VII), it is not required to provide the accommodation. Employers may consider not only the direct monetary costs, but also the burden on the conduct of the Employer’s business, such as the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public. Employers will need to analyze undue hardship on a case-by-case basis, and demonstrate the costs or disruption caused by the accommodations.
  • Granting religious accommodation requests for one employee does not mean an employer has to grant all religious accommodation requests. The EEOC warns, however, that merely assuming that more employees will request religious accommodations may not be enough.
  • Where more than one reasonable accommodation is possible, the Employer may choose which to offer. The Employer does not have to provide the accommodation of the employee’s choice. Employers are only obligated to provide an effective accommodation that resolves the religious conflict.
  • Employers can continue to reevaluate the accommodation and determine if it should be adjusted or eliminated because of changed circumstances.

The EEOC has published a sample religious accommodation requests form that employers can use for requests from workers. The template is the same one the agency uses for its own employees. The form suggests asking questions regarding the policy that conflicts with the employee’s religious belief, the nature of the practice or observance, and what accommodation the worker is requesting. Businesses have the right to issue vaccine mandates but must consider individual accommodation requests for disabilities and sincerely held religious beliefs.

Pittsburgh Labor & Employment Attorneys

Please contact attorney Frank Botta at fbotta@lynchlaw-group.com, or by phone at 724.776.8000 if you are in need of clarification or advice about how to ensure your vaccine policies comply with Title VII and other applicable laws.

This entry was posted in COVID-19 Updates, Labor and Employment, Legal Watch. Bookmark the permalink.