The policy seemed straightforward. A hospital required all employees to receive seasonal flu vaccinations based on its assessment of the dangers of influenza to patients with compromised immune systems. The hospital went further, providing an exemption from the policy for employees with medical or religious reasons for avoiding the vaccinations. Nevertheless, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that it had reached a $300,000 settlement with the hospital based on its claims that the vaccination policy violated the religious rights of six terminated employees under Title VII.
The EEOC claimed that in practice, the Pennsylvania hospital rejected religious claims for exemption from the flu vaccine, while routinely granting medical exemptions. The settlement specifically prohibits the hospital from requiring that employees seeking a religious exemption from the vaccinations provide notes from clergy certifying the religious basis for the objection. In general, Title VII prohibits employers from inquiring into the basis for or sincerity of the employee’s religious practices or beliefs.
The settlement does allow the hospital to continue denying vaccination exemption requests if it can prove undue hardship. This is a difficult standard, requiring the employer to demonstrate something close to certainty of harm in the event that the exemption is granted. In the hospital’s case, undue hardship could arise for example, with employees whose jobs requires regular and close contact with patients known to have compromised immune systems.
The EEOC’s position obviously provides employees who simply prefer not to get vaccinated an avenue to claim a questionable religious exemption to the requirement. Absent clear evidence that the employee does not hold a sincere religious belief supporting the accommodation request, the employer has little recourse other than to determine whether the accommodation presents the undue hardship allowed by the EEOC.