Many companies are now threatening to fire employees who do not get their COVID-19 vaccinations. Tire companies may be interested in enacting vaccine-related policies for the health of their employees, for the safety of their customers, or for improved public perception. But the question remains: Is it legal to terminate employees if they don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine?
Is It Legal To Terminate Employees If They Don’t Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?
Many employees believe they cannot be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine because it is part of their medical records — but this is not true. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are allowed to require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine to work. There are exceptions made for those who cannot get vaccinated against COVID for medical reasons, religious reasons, or other reasons that might trigger the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
The vast majority of the United States operates with “at-will” employment. Employers are able to let employees go at any time for any reason as long as these reasons are non-discriminatory. Through “at-will” employment, employers are free to let employees go for a variety of reasons, COVID-19 vaccinations included.
It should also be noted that the ADA only applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. Many smaller automotive companies hire fewer than 15 full-time employees and therefore many of the broader employment regulations and restrictions do not apply.
Can Employees Get Unemployment Benefits If They Are Terminated?
Unemployment benefits are complex and often decided on a case-by-case basis. First, employees are not able to get unemployment benefits if they walk off the job rather than being vaccinated; they would need to actually be fired to qualify for unemployment benefits in the first place. Second, the termination would need to be seen as being “without cause.” In the case of vaccination, this is unlikely.
In at least one employment case, unemployment benefits were refused because a refusal to get vaccination was seen as failing to fulfill the requirements of the job. Some unemployment offices may see vaccination refusal as constructively quitting; it is the employee deciding they don’t want to work rather than the employer. It is the same as simply refusing to come in until an employer fires you.
In general, an employee who is fired because they refuse to be vaccinated is not eligible for unemployment benefits. But because COVID-19 is so unprecedented, this may change in the future, and there are still conversations being held about the issue.
Are There Any Exceptions?
Employees may have a legitimate, medical exemption for vaccination. As an example, employees who are currently going through chemotherapy may be advised not to get the vaccine. Employees who have had negative reactions to vaccinations in the past or who are prone to blood clots will also be medically discouraged from getting the vaccine. These employees may be able to get a medical letter that exempts them from vaccination — and it would be discriminatory to fire them for not being vaccinated.
Another issue that may arise is religious discrimination. To constitute religious discrimination, however, it would need to be shown that the individual has genuine and longstanding religious beliefs that discourage them from being vaccinated. Very few established and legally recognized religions have proscriptions against vaccinations. In the past, religious leaders have largely been against vaccination because the vaccines contained pork products — the COVID-19 vaccination does not have any animal products in it.
HR departments should be thorough in their documentation regarding exemption requests and consider whether their denial of these exemption requests could constitute discriminatory behavior.
The Bottom Line: COVID-19 Vaccines and Employee Rights
In the United States, the bulk of employment is at will. Montana is the only exception. Because of this, anyone can get fired at any time for any non-protected infraction. If an employee has a religious or medical reason for declining the vaccine, they may be able to acquire an exemption. Otherwise, employers are more or less allowed to fire employees whenever they want.
HR departments will need to carefully consult their own guidelines to determine whether they want to enforce COVID-19 vaccination and what the consequences might be of doing so. Legalities, health, and public optics are all something that companies will need to consider today when making COVID-19-related decisions. As the COVID-19 situation is so unprecedented, HR departments should also remain abreast of any new developments. There are multiple movements throughout many states (such as Texas), to create laws and regulations around vaccination requirements.
Mike Cioffi is the founder of Tire Talent, a boutique recruiting agency dedicated to our industry. He is also a writer for Tire Business with a focus on current HR and Talent topics that may impact your business or team.