EEOC’s New COVID-19 Guidance: Employee Caregivers and Religious Exemptions

The EEOC recently revised its What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws guidance document to address two issues: the treatment of pandemic-related caregivers (Section I), and religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine (Section L).

With respect to pandemic-related caregivers, referring to employees who are caring for their family members and loved ones, the new EEOC guidance confirms:

  • Employees do not have a right to any accommodations to handle caregiving duties under federal EEO laws. However, they may have rights under the FMLA or analogous state leave laws.
  • Employers need not excuse poor performance that results from caregiving duties. However, performance standards must be applied consistently to all employees.
  • Employers may not treat female employees better or worse because of gender-based assumptions about pandemic-related caregiving responsibilities. For example, an employer may not:
    • pass women over for promotions or high-profile projects requiring overtime or travel out of fear they will need more time off;
    • require pregnant workers to telework or limit contact with colleagues or customers;
    • grant male employees less flexibility than females to care for family members infected by COVID-19.
  • Employers must require the same process for employees of any race, gender, national origin, etc. who request COVID-19 related schedule changes or leaves.
  • Employers may not discriminate against caregivers based upon their association with an individual with a disability. For example, an employer may not:
    • refuse to hire an applicant out of fear that their caregiving responsibilities for a person at high risk of COVID-19 complications will increase healthcare costs;
    • refuse an employee’s request for leave to care for a parent with long-COVID while approving other employees’ leave requests to handle other personal responsibilities.
  • Employers may not assume that older workers with caregiving responsibilities need special treatment or lack the stamina to perform their job while providing caregiving duties.
  • Employers must take steps to prevent and respond to workplace harassment or retaliation based upon an employee’s pandemic-related caregiving responsibilities.

Additional examples and details may be found in the related EEOC technical assistance document.

On the issue of religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine, the new EEOC guidance clarifies:

  • Employees must tell employers that they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate based upon a sincerely held religious belief, but they need not use any “magic words.”
  • Objections to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement that are based on social, political, economic views, or personal preferences do not qualify as religious beliefs or justify an exemption.
  • The EEOC’s internal religious accommodation request form is one example of a form employers could use for employee requests. This form is just an example and not required in this format.
  • Employers should normally assume that a religious accommodation request is based upon a sincerely held religious belief, but it may ask for additional information if it has an objective basis for doing so (i.e., suspicious timing or inconsistent behavior), and employees must cooperate with the inquiry.
    • While prior inconsistent conduct by the employee may be relevant to the question of sincerity, it is not conclusive because a person’s beliefs may change over time.
    • No one factor is determinative on the question of sincerity, and employers should evaluate objections on an individual basis.
  • Employers should consider reasonable accommodations to vaccinations, including telework and reassignment, if they do not impose an undue hardship. If there is more than one possible accommodation, the employer may choose which one to offer.
  • Employers need not bear more than a  minimal cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief. Costs include both monetary costs and any burden on the employer’s business (i.e., where it would impair workplace safety, diminish the efficiency of other jobs, or cause coworkers to shoulder too much of the hazardous or burdensome work). Another relevant consideration is the number of other employees who are seeking a similar accommodation, thus resulting in a burdensome cumulative cost to the employer.
  • An undue hardship assessment must be based on objective information, not speculation or hypotheticals.

While serious COVID-19 infection rates are falling nation-wide, complicated issues may arise as more employees return to the physical workplace. Please reach out to your Lake Effect partners for any help you may need.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about COVID-19 compliance and will continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Supreme Court Decision on Vaccine Mandate

Supreme Court: OSHA Exceeded Its Authority by Requiring Large Employers to Adopt Mandatory Vaccination Policies, But Healthcare Providers Can Require Employee Vaccinations

On January, 13, 2022, The US Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision on two Biden Administration initiatives aimed at increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates across the nation: (1) OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard, which requires large employers (100+ employees) to adopt mandatory vaccination policies; and (2) the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) Interim Final Rule, which requires certified healthcare entities to mandate employee vaccinations. For a detailed discussion of OSHA’s ETS for large employees, please see Lake Effect's prior blog on this topic.

As to the first, the Supreme Court reinstated a nationwide stay of OSHA’s ETS, finding that parties challenging OSHA’s vaccine mandate will likely prevail on the merits of the case. The Supreme Court explained that OSHA is tasked with regulating workplace health and safety. However, allowing OSHA to regulate the hazards of Americans’ daily lives would significantly expand its regulatory authority in a manner not authorized or intended by Congress. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling, the case will be sent back to the Sixth Circuit for a final decision on the merits, and OSHA cannot enforce the ETS in the interim. Given the Supreme Court’s decision, however, it is highly unlikely that the Sixth Circuit will uphold the ETS.

As to the second initiative, the Supreme Court upheld CMS’ ability to enforce its vaccination mandate for certified health care providers. The Court found that the US Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to impose detailed conditions on the receipt of Medicare and Medicaid funds, and those conditions are often aimed at preventing and controlling the transmission of communicable diseases. The Court concluded that requiring healthcare providers to mandate employee vaccinations as one such condition is well within the authority of CMS.

What Should Employers Do Now?
At this time, large employers need not implement OSHA’s detailed vaccination and testing requirements, and it is highly unlikely that the ETS will be upheld at all. However, employers of any size may lawfully implement their own vaccination and testing policies, as long as accommodations for eligible employees are granted in accordance with Title VII (religion) and the ADA (disability).

CMS can enforce its Interim Rule as to covered healthcare provider employers nationwide. Although further litigation on the Rule is likely, covered healthcare providers should prepare to meet upcoming compliance deadlines in January and February 2022.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about federal, state, and local regulations that impact employers across all industries. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

The Uncertain Fate of OSHA’s ETS Mandating Employer Vaccination Policies

What is the status of OSHA’s ETS? As Lake Effect previously reported, OSHA issued an Emergency Temporary Standard earlier this month requiring employers with 100 or more employees to implement mandatory vaccination or testing/masking policies. Read our prior blog for a full discussion of OSHA’s guidelines and requirements. In response to the ETS, employers across the country began to prepare policies in advance of the initial December deadlines.

Almost immediately, states, employers, and other groups across the country filed lawsuits challenging OSHA’s authority to issue the ETS. On November 5, 2021, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit temporarily halted the mandate. On November 12, 2021, the full 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order barring OSHA from implementing and enforcing the ETS pending further court proceedings. In response, OSHA announced that it had “suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of the ETS pending future developments in the litigation.” In the latest legal development, the Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation consolidated at least 34 lawsuits across the country challenging the ETS (including the 5th Circuit case) before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati. A three-judge panel from the 6th Circuit will be randomly assigned to hear all pending legal challenges to OSHA’s ETS.

What does this mean for employers? For now, OSHA will cease implementation and enforcement of the ETS, and prior December and January deadlines are no longer in effect pending further court action. However, this does not necessarily mean employers should delay or stop planning for vaccination policies. Keep in mind:

  • The Biden Administration and OSHA are confident in OSHA’s authority to issue workplace safety-related regulations, and they will vigorously defend the enforceability of the ETS.
  • Despite the 5th Circuit’s initial stay, the 6th Circuit could reject legal challenges and uphold OSHA’s authority to issue the ETS.
  • Regardless of the outcome of legal challenges to the ETS, employers of any size have the discretion to implement mandatory vaccination and/or testing/masking policies in their workplaces, as long as they comply with Title VII and ADA accommodation requirements.
  • Employers who are federal contractors or health care providers must comply with vaccination mandates under the Federal Contractor Mandate and CMS Medicate Omnibus Staff Vaccine Mandate Interim Final Rule. These mandates are unaffected by the current ETS litigation.

On A Related Note, You May Have Collective Bargaining Obligations. On November 10, 2021 (prior to consolidation of country-wide lawsuits challenging the ETS) the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Acting Associate General Counsel issued a memorandum outlining employers’ obligations to bargain with unions about issues related to the ETS. She confirmed that covered employers must bargain with unions about whether to implement a vaccine mandate or implement a vaccine and testing/masking policy. In addition, employers must bargain about the effects of the ETS policy on employees, including whether to provide leave to employees who test positive or how to discipline employees who refuse to comply with an ETS policy. Employers with represented employees should keep these obligations in mind as they consider and implement any vaccination policy.

Contact your partners at Lake Effect for help navigating vaccination issues in the workplace during this uncertain time. We will continue to closely monitor all legal developments relating to the ETS.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about federal, state, and local regulations that impact employers across all industries. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

EEOC Provides Additional Guidance on Religious Objections to Vaccine Mandates

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.

Lake Effect continues to monitor important legal and HR developments, including COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please watch our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Lake Effect HR & Law, LLC
(844) 333-5253 (LAKE)
info@le-hrlaw.com

LakeEffectWhite-footer2

© 2022 Lake Effect HR & Law, LLC