Many businesses in New Jersey are re-opening and requesting employees who worked remotely during the COVID pandemic to return to the office. If you’re one of those employees, you might wonder: Is it legal for my boss to require that I obtain the COVID vaccine as a condition of employment?
Generally, the answer is ‘yes.’ As of July of 2021, both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the State of New Jersey have issued guidances stating that employers may demand you receive the vaccine before returning to the workplace (relatedly, this means your employer may require you to furnish proof of vaccination before re-entering the office). The limited exceptions are if:
- You have a disability that prevents you from getting the COVID vaccine;
- You have been specifically advised by your doctor not to get the COVID vaccine while pregnant or breastfeeding; or
- You have a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that prevents you from getting the COVID vaccine.
If you fall into one of these categories, you are entitled to ask your employer for a “reasonable accommodation” that will allow you to continue to work despite your unvaccinated status. Such accommodations might include allowing you to work remotely from home, or perhaps moving you from a shared workspace in an open office to a traditional, closed-door office room.
Your employer is obligated to engage in dialogue with you to arrive at an accommodation that will address your need to go unvaccinated, while at the same time respecting the employer’s need to maintain a safe and healthy workplace for the rest of the staff (as required by OSHA). Most importantly, an employer is not required to grant any accommodation that would pose an undue burden on the employer’s business operations. For instance, a Quality Assurance inspector who is hired for the sole purpose of examining products as they roll off a factory production line would not likely receive a work-from-home accommodation, as it’s simply unfeasible.
Can My Employer Ask Me Questions About My Disability or Religious Beliefs?
If you’re relying upon your disability, pregnant or breast-feeding status, or sincerely-held religious beliefs as the basis of seeking an exemption from your employer’s vaccine mandate, then your employer is entitled to confirm that you are, in fact, disabled, pregnant, or breast-feeding, or sincere in your religion. This means your employer may:
- Require a letter or other documentation from your physician confirming that you have a disability that prevents your vaccination, or that your physician advised you against receiving the COVID vaccine because you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
When it comes to religious exemptions, if your employer has an objective basis for questioning whether your professed religious beliefs or practices prevent you from being vaccinated, then your employer may ask you questions about those beliefs or practices to determine their sincerity.
As for what’s an “objective basis”? It depends on the circumstances. Let’s take a five-year employee who has been open about following the Christian Science faith since his first day on the job, and who has been known to reject medical care over the course of his career. If this employee asks for a vaccine exemption, the employer will have a hard time arguing there’s an objective basis for questioning the employee about whether he’s “truly” a Christian Scientist. On the other hand, the employer is justified in questioning an employee who, out of the blue, requests a vaccine exemption because of a general prohibition like “my religion is against it.” The employer may ask the employee to specify the religion, point out the specific religious tenets prohibiting vaccination, and the like.
Do you find yourself needing to request a reasonable accommodation from your employer, whether COVID-related or due to another medical issue? Get the help of an experienced employment lawyer in New Jersey. Call our offices today for a free consultation.