Title VII and COVID-19 Vaccinations
K.12. Under Title VII, how should an employer respond to an employee who communicates that he or she is unable to be vaccinated for COVID-19 (or provide documentation or other confirmation of vaccination) because of a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance? (12/16/20, updated 5/28/21)
Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship. Employers also may receive religious accommodation requests from individuals who wish to wait until an alternative version or specific brand of COVID-19 vaccine is available to the employee. Such requests should be processed according to the same standards that apply to other accommodation requests.
EEOC guidance explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. However, if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information. See also 29 CFR 1605.
Under Title VII, an employer should thoroughly consider all possible reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment. For suggestions about types of reasonable accommodation for unvaccinated employees, see question and answer K.6., above. In many circumstances, it may be possible to accommodate those seeking reasonable accommodations for their religious beliefs, practices, or observances.
Under Title VII, courts define “undue hardship” as having more than minimal cost or burden on the employer. This is an easier standard for employers to meet than the ADA’s undue hardship standard, which applies to requests for accommodations due to a disability. Considerations relevant to undue hardship can include, among other things, the proportion of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with non-employees, whose vaccination status could be unknown or who may be ineligible for the vaccine. Ultimately, if an employee cannot be accommodated, employers should determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities before taking adverse employment action against an unvaccinated employee