What is a "reasonable accommodation" for a flu vaccine objector?
A new lawsuit brought by the EEOC, based on unique facts, raises questions about how far hospitals can go in imposing vaccine requirements on employees and then punishing those who do not fully comply.
An employee of Baystate Medical Center had sought a religious accommodation from a mandatory influenza immunization policy applicable to all employees. Workers were required to receive a flu shot or, alternatively, wear a facemask all the time.
The hospital said it fired the employee because she not only refused the flu vaccine but also sometimes pulled down the facemask so that she could speak clearly. She did not work directly with patients and was located in the hospital's administrative services wing.
EEOC Alleges That Hospital Violated Federal Anti-Bias Laws
The unusual case is filed under filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint alleges that the hospital at first suspended the employee when supervisors noticed that, after declining a flu shot on religious grounds, she didn't always cover her mouth and nose with a mask. They insisted that, as a condition of returning to work, she either get a flu shot or wear the face mask at all times. Because she was concerned about her ability to communicate with others while wearing the mask, she did not fully comply, and was dismissed. The hospital regarded her has having "resigned."
Were Hospital's Rules A "Reasonable Accommodation"?
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, a spokesman for the EEOC said that employers are required by federal law to balance the employee's right to practice a religion with the operation of a business. The case may hinge on whether the hospital provided a "reasonable accommodation."
Facemasks are believed by many researchers to be ineffective in controlling the flu, a view that may support the EEOC's claim that the hospital's approach is not reasonable. Courts may also focus the hospital's duty to protect its patients. The court might look at how hard the hospital tried to come with alternative work arrangements. The employee's apparent lack of any direct patient contact could also be a factor.
If you feel your employment is in jeopardy because of your refusal to comply with an employer's flu shot policy, or if you have already been terminated, you should consult an experienced vaccine law attorney. Your civil rights may have been violated, and you may have a valid claim for damages or reinstatement.