COVID vaccine mandate: New rules, exceptions, info for people who aren’t vaccinated

Your employer can soon legally terminate your employment if you refuse the vaccine or regular COVID-19 testing.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Companies employing 100 or more people will soon need to require their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine or get tested for the deadly disease weekly, as part of a new vaccination mandate issued by President Joe Biden in September. The requirement is designed to curb the surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the delta variant.

The Biden administration hopes to jolt tens of millions of people into getting vaccinated. Unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely than vaccinated people to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers,” Biden, a Democrat, said during a White House briefing after he announced the mandate. Breakthrough COVID cases, which occur when vaccinated people contract the disease, are typically less deadly than cases in unvaccinated patients but can still produce long-term effects, including “long COVID.”

The push to require vaccinations has prompted a backlash. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has banned any employer from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine. “The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective, and our best defense against the virus,” he posted on Twitter, “but should always remain voluntary and never forced.”

It’s unclear when exactly the Department of Labor will issue the mandate. Here’s what you need to know about the COVID-19 mandate for companies.

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The federal government requires companies to mandate the vaccine

Even before Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, US employers could require their employees to be vaccinated during pandemics, under federal law.

The DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will issue new requirements for all companies with 100 or more employees to ensure they are either fully vaccinated or produce negative test results at least once a week, Biden said.

Because it’s federally mandated, the Department of Labor will require employers to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated. This includes time to get the shot and sick time to recover from any side effects.

Americans with Disabilities Act excuses some people from mandatory vaccination

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to workers with medical conditions that would make them unable to get a vaccine. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognizes long COVID as a disability under the ADA

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, these civil rights protections apply — even during emergencies — and can’t be waived.

Still, the CDC found that some long COVID patients say their symptoms improved after receiving the vaccination. The agency says more studies are needed to determine how the vaccine affects post-COVID conditions.

Does the Civil Rights Act apply to people with religious beliefs opposing vaccines?

At this time, it’s unclear whether people will be able to decline the COVID vaccine because of their religious beliefs. Even within the clergy, some disagreement appears to have surfaced. For instance, Pope Francis is encouraging Catholics to get vaccinated, saying the Vatican approves of the various vaccines. Yet Timothy Broglio, military archbishop, says Catholic troops can refuse the COVID-19 vaccine (PDF) if receiving it would violate their conscience.

New York has been back and forth on religious vaccine exemptions. Health care workers filed a lawsuit against the mandate, saying it violates their First Amendment rights and the Civil Rights Act. On Tuesday, a judge ruled that those health care workers can seek religious exemption requests from a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said she’d fight the judge’s decision, citing the public health crisis that COVID poses to New York state residents.

Three syringes

Some employers might impose fines on employees who choose not to get vaccinated.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What happens if you object to receiving a vaccine when your employer requires it?

Just because you have a valid medical disability or theological objection to receiving a coronavirus vaccine doesn’t mean your employer has to let you continue working under the same conditions you’ve been used to. Companies are required to make “reasonable accommodations” if an employee objects to receiving a vaccine for valid reasons. Such accommodations could include allowing the employee to work remotely or take a leave of absence. The employee could also show a negative COVID-19 test once a week, per the president’s mandate.

If you don’t have a medical condition per the ADA or religious reason for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, your employer has the right to terminate your employment. Note that you likely won’t be able to claim unemployment benefits if that happens because your employer’s reasoning for firing you would be “for cause” that’s tied to complying with company policy.

Some companies are also considering imposing fines on unvaccinated workers refusing to get the shot. This could include raising health care costs, withholding raises and restricting access to workplace amenities. For instance, the NBA says it won’t pay unvaccinated players who miss games.

A 1905 Supreme Court case allows employers to require vaccines

There are precedents for large-scale vaccination requirements in US law. In 1901, a deadly smallpox outbreak in New England prompted local governments to order mandatory vaccinations for everyone in the area. Some residents, however, objected, and one took it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that the government may impose “reasonable regulations,” such as a vaccine requirement during pandemics, for the purpose of protecting the “safety of the general public.” 

The court case forms the basis of guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which makes it clear that employers may make similar demands of their workers.

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How likely is your employer to require a COVID-19 vaccine?

If your company employs 100 or more workers, they’re legally required to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine or subject you to regular testing. Smaller companies can also require workers to get vaccinated, although it’s not considered a federal mandate. Here’s more about who’s required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

CNET reached out to the Department of Labor for comment but didn’t immediately get a response.

For more information, here’s the latest on the Moderna COVID-19 booster shot and who’s eligible for the Pfizer booster vaccine right now. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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