Employer Alert: New EEOC Guidance on Religious Objections to COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements
Last week, the EEOC released updated guidance on how employers should manage employees’ religious objections to COVID-19 vaccine requirements. In light of this update, employers should take careful note to revise their existing policies and approaches to handling employees’ religious objections to vaccine requirements and related requests for reasonable accommodations. Please see our previous discussion about creating and implementing a successful COVID-19 workplace policy and related legal issues.
The EEOC’s updated guidance addresses several key questions:
What type of request or notice is required by employees?
Employees must inform their employer that they have a religious objection to an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement. The EEOC sets a low standard, simply that the employee has put the employer on notice. Employees do not have to use any specific language or magic words, just that the vaccine requirement conflicts with the employee’s sincerely held religious belief.
Because “magic words” are not required, employers should ensure supervisors and managers are trained to understand when an employee might be making a reasonable accommodation request, and the nature of their request in the event that their objection is unclear or subject to more than one basis – i.e. religious beliefs and medical necessity.
Can an employer challenge or further evaluate an employee’s request?
Employers should assume the employee’s request is based on sincerely held religious beliefs. If the employer has an objective basis to doubt or question that belief, however, either based on its religious nature or sincerity, the employer can make what the EEOC terms a “limited factual inquiry.”
Because of the obvious risks around challenging employees on this basis, employers should exercise precision in the who, what, why, and how of this inquiry. Creation of thoughtful policies concerning religious accommodations and training supervisors and managers on how to handle such requests are crucial to avoiding additional pitfalls. Most importantly and at a fundamental level, employers must conduct any such inquiry on a case-by-case basis.
- Definitions: Religion and Religious Belief
Title VII and related laws protect both traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs. As such, it is vital that employers avoid any assumptions. That said, Title VII does not protect social, philosophical, political, or economic views, or other personal preferences, as “religious beliefs.” Title VII also does not protect employee objections or concerns about vaccine effects that have no basis in religion.
- Sincerity of a Religious Belief
The sincerity of an employee’s religious belief is not usually subject to dispute. This includes the degree to which an employee previously adhered to a certain faith or practice. Employers may still explore certain factors to assess an employee’s credibility, including whether: 1) the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with their professed belief; 2) the accommodation includes desirable nonreligious benefits; and/or 3) the timing of the request renders it suspect (for example, it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons).
Finally, the employee’s sincerely held religious belief must actually conflict with the employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement to justify an exception to the employer’s policy and related accommodation.
How and when can an employer deny an employee’s request for religious accommodation based on undue hardship?
Employers should consider any possible reasonable accommodations for an unvaccinated employee, including remote work, reassignment, or masking and/or distancing options where available.
“Undue hardship” is anything more than a de minimis cost to the employer to provide the requested accommodation. This includes, but is not limited to, harm to other employees’ efficiency, direct monetary costs, or safety risks, like the spread of COVID-19 to other employees, customers, or members of the public. If an undue hardship exists, Title VII does not require the employer to grant the accommodation.
Employers must evaluate undue hardship on an objective, case-by-case basis and in light of the specific circumstances of the worksite, the employee’s role, and possible risks for other employees or persons at the worksite, like those who are medically vulnerable. Employers may also consider the number of employees requesting similar accommodations or the number of employees who are vaccinated.
Employers evaluating a reasonable accommodation request must engage the employee in an interactive process. At minimum, employers should make accommodation request forms available to employees and the employer should document the interactive process in detail. To ensure consistency, employers should designate a single or limited number of individuals to manage employees’ requests.
The EEOC guidance notes that considerations of the sincerity of the employee’s belief and undue hardship depend entirely on each employee’s specific workplace circumstances. As such, employers may grant and deny requests for the same accommodation based on the same beliefs for different employees.
If two reasonable accommodations are available, can the employer choose?
Yes. While the employer may consider the employee’s preference, it may choose which accommodation to grant. The employer should be prepared to explain why it selected one versus the other.
If an employer grants a religious accommodation to an employee, can the employer later reconsider it?
Yes. Circumstances may evolve, as may the basis for the employee’s request, whether an accommodation creates an undue hardship, and the circumstances relating to employers’ duties to maintain a safe workplace. Employers should engage the employee in an ongoing dialogue if or when a need or reason arises to revisit, revise, or revoke the accommodation.
This issue continues to develop, particularly as the federal government continues to further clarify vaccine requirements for employers, including upcoming guidance and standards by agencies like OSHA on employee vaccinations, testing, and mask requirements. Because of the wide range of issues related to this topic, and the necessary case-by-case analysis required for employee requests, employers should seek advice from counsel on their vaccination and accommodation policies and procedures and where employees make individual requests. Please contact a Nelson Mullins Labor & Employment attorney with any additional questions.
 Employers should be prepared to distinguish between inconsistency and the employee’s previously less rigorous or scrupulous observance of a religious belief or practice. Furthermore, employers should avoid making any assumptions based on whether the employee’s conduct deviates from commonly held tenets of a certain religion, common understanding of those tenets, or where the employee adheres to some practices and not others. Employers must consider how employees’ adherence to a certain faith may change over time.
These materials have been prepared for informational purposes only and are not legal advice. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.