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Vaccines and the Workplace

Can Maryland employers mandate the COVID-19 vaccine?

As the nation’s workers begin to return to pandemic-shuttered office buildings, many concerns about personal safety may linger; namely, who is vaccinated, who isn’t, and, chiefly, can my employer make me get the shot? In June, one class of 117 health care workers in Texas took just this question to federal court when they sued Houston Methodist Hospital over its COVID-19 vaccine requirement. A U.S. district judge dismissed the lawsuit, upholding the hospital’s policy and stating it broke no federal law. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued similar guidance, noting that employers can legally require a COVID-19 vaccination for employees to re-enter the workplace.

So what can Maryland workers who don’t want the shot do? 

Not too much, says Emejuru Law founder Ikechukwu Emejuru, who practices employment law in Silver Springs. 

“But that doesn’t mean the policy won’t be challenged in the future,” he says. “Although, after the federal court in Texas threw out the lawsuit, a challenge could prove difficult.”

If you refuse to get the vaccine, you could be out of a job.

“Unless you have a qualifying disability and/or sincerely held religious belief or disability under the Americans with Disability Act, you can be required by your employer to get a COVID-19 vaccine,” Emejuru says. “Otherwise, you could face termination.”

A qualifying disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activity, Emejuru notes, like walking, talking, or even working.  

And as far as sincerely held religious beliefs, employers are required to provide accommodations for employees who raise religious objections to the vaccine. The EEOC broadly defines “religion” in terms that go beyond being a church member or believer in God, and includes moral or ethical beliefs. 

It’s only under those two protections that an employee could potentially seek legal recourse, Emejuru says. 

“You could have legal recourse if your employer punished you for refusing to take the vaccine despite your disability-related objection or sincerely held religious objections to the vaccine,” Emejuru says. 

If you do work for an employer who requires the vaccine, be prepared for that employer to also require proof. 

“Employers may take screening steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19, and an employer could also require proof, especially if you are going back into an office setting,” Emejuru says. 

A potential upside of the requirement could be an employer-sponsored incentive program.

“Private employers are at liberty to do what they want to ensure a safe workplace, even If that means offering a bonus, gift cards, or even more vacation time to an employee,” Emejuru says. “Some private employers can even offer incentives to employees to get vaccinated, just like some states have been doing.”

While the vaccination mandates are legally sound, Emejuru says the reality of what going back to work actually looks like might table the issue for a while.

“It is too hard to tell at this point what ‘going back to work’ really means,” he says. “Most office spaces are still dormant, and there appears to be a national trend of employees unwilling to go back full-time. So it’s possible that fully remote workers not yet vaccinated, or unwilling to get vaccinated, may not have to confront this issue right now.”

If you’d like more information on employee rights, find further reading here, or an experienced Maryland employment lawyer can help.

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