Now that COVID-19 vaccinations are rolling out across New York state and beyond, can health care providers require employees to receive the vaccine – especially when this layer of protection may enhance their capability to care for coronavirus patients and reduce the spread within the health care setting?

Last week the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its COVID-19 guidance for all employers – including health care employers – and addressed this question.

Short answer: while mandatory policies are permissible, health care employers should carve out exceptions for employees that request disability or religious accommodations, and make appropriate adjustments. The first exception is when an employee has a specific medical reason that prevents the employee from receiving the vaccine. The second exception is when an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from receiving the vaccine.

If the employer determines a reasonable accommodation cannot be provided without posing an undue hardship, the employer may lawfully exclude the employee from the workplace—but this might not require termination. Other options such as unpaid leave might be feasible until the employer can safely bring the employee back into the workplace. At this point, New York state has not released any explicit guidance on COVID-19 vaccines for employees, but the EEOC’s guidance appears to be consistent with New York’s employment discrimination laws.

For more information, read our Legal Alert on employer guidance for COVID-19 vaccinations.