Employers can mandate COVID vaccines in return to workplace, legal experts says

Some advisors say it may be more beneficial for businesses to be flexible and understanding with staff they want back in the office
Photo credit Getty Images

ST. LOUIS, MO (KMOX) - Experts tell KMOX, the COVID vaccine is not a magic bullet, but is a significant step in ending the coronavirus pandemic. Many businesses see the vaccine roll-out as a way to get the economy moving again.

"Several of my trucking company clients were considering whether they should make the vaccine mandatory because an interruption in the supply chain affects every single one of us," points out KMOX Legal Analyst Brad Young, with Harris, Dowell, Fisher and Young, "there are no federal laws and nor are there any really state laws in Missouri or Illinois that prevent an employer from requiring a vaccine as a condition of an employment. Every business has to operate and if they're infected in the business environment, they can't operate."

Multiple national surveys show that a relatively small percentage of companies plan to mandate a COVID vaccine for employees. Even then, workers can ask for exemptions under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act. Young points out, it's important to know the limitations of those laws. "A lot of folks think that that could cover an employee's social, political or economic beliefs, but it truly does not."

Young says employees have to demonstrate that it would violate sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances. In case you're wondering, he tells KMOX it's the same for the flu vaccine. "The EEOC has said over the past, decade, that employers can require an influenza vaccine."

Many companies are starting to make plans to bring employees back to their physical workplace. Is that also something they can mandate?

"That's a great question and something that, uh, is being wrestled with around the country," responds Dan Mehan, President and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Mehan says hundreds of businesses in Missouri are asking for COVID liability protection. "We've seen around the country, a rash of lawsuits that have come out against employers that are trying to reopen, trying to keep their employees safe and just trying to provide that economic opportunity for their communities." In March, the Missouri Senate passed legislation shielding small businesses, and others from lawsuits resulting from COVID-19 exposure.  At the time of this report, the measure had not passed the Missouri House.

Bringing employees back to the office isn't as simple as turning on the lights and opening the doors. Jennifer Znosko is a shareholder at labor and employment law firm Littler Mendelson's St. Louis office. "For those of us and businesses that sit in St. Louis city and St. Louis County, there are still restrictions that are in place that will impact workplaces. Uh, the biggest ones that are currently in place are mask requirements and also still capacity restrictions."

Some employees would have protections under federal law if they have underlying health conditions that could put them at risk from exposure to COVID. Others may not have any choice. Yet Znosko cautions employers to do more follow up, if a staffer is uncomfortable coming back to the company's physical location. "I think that it's important to recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant mental health issues in the population. And there are many different mental health issues that can qualify as underlying health conditions under the ADA, and those should be evaluated."

She adds, many employees have been loyal through the ups and downs of the pandemic. "It may be more beneficial for the employer to work with employees, to try to have a flexible approach to returning to the office."

Littler Mendelson surveyed roughly 18-hundred in-house counsel, HR professionals and C-suite executives. Nearly half of businesses say they will continue remote work schedules until at least the summer. As more staff do return to the workplace businesses say they'll continue masking. routine health screenings, and will modify workplaces to maintain social distancing.

A significant number plan to rotate employee schedules or split shifts to facilitate distancing.

@2021 Audacy (KMOX). All rights reserved.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Getty Images