COVID-19, Vaccines, and Returning to Work

It has been a strange and difficult year-and-a-half. In that span, we have gone from knowing very little about the coronavirus to discussing the various types of COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use by the FDA. While many companies implemented permanent work-from-home policies, many others are urging employees to return to in-person work. The more we have learned about the virus, the more complex work life has become. This has given rise to a handful of frequently asked questions associated with the new age of COVID-19. 

Can Employers Require Employees to Get a COVID Vaccine?

In many cases, yes. This question cannot be definitively answered, because the vaccines currently available in the U.S. have not received full approval by the FDA. Because the vaccines are still under an emergency use authorization (“EUA”), employers could run into some complications if they try to explicitly require their employees to get the vaccine. Employees with disabilities might be permitted to refuse the vaccine that is otherwise required by an employer if their disability could result in a severe reaction. 

If you inform your employer that your disability should preclude you from receiving the vaccine, your employer will likely need to try to provide a reasonable accommodation. Disabled employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations unless it would present an undue hardship to the employer. If a reasonable accommodation cannot be provided, your employer might be able to terminate your employment if having you around other employees would present a “direct threat” to the health and wellbeing of your coworkers. 

Is COVID-19 a Recognized Disability?

As of this blog’s publication, COVID-19 is not officially recognized as a disability in Michigan or Illinois. Medical professionals are still learning a lot about the virus and its long-term effects on patients. While it’s clear that many COVID-19 “long-haulers” experience debilitating effects from the illness many months after their initial infection, the virus has not yet been deemed as a disability. This means you are not automatically entitled to reasonable accommodations at work if you contract the virus.

Can Your Employer Fire You For Contracting COVID-19?

This question, like others, does not have a simple answer. To begin, every state besides Montana is an at-will state, which means employers in Michigan and Illinois may terminate an employee’s employment for nearly any reason. If you miss too many days, your employer may generally be permitted to fire you. However, you may be able to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA if you are dealing with or recovering from a medical condition, or caring for someone else who is ill. 

Your employer might still be participating in FFCRA leave, which provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of paid leave in connection with COVID-19. If you are taking approved leave, your employer is not permitted to fire you for taking leave. 

Are There Other Grounds for Refusing a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Besides protections for employees with disabilities, workers with “sincerely held” religious convictions may be able to refuse a vaccine that is otherwise required at work. These workers may receive reasonable accommodations and are subject to the same “direct threat” exemption as disabled workers. 

Any Other Questions?

The pandemic has presented a number of challenges and obstacles for employees and their rights in the workplace. As we are hopefully nearing the end of this terrible pandemic, Attorney Carla D. Aikens and her firm are committed to protecting employee rights and holding errant employers accountable. Get in touch with them today and enjoy a free legal consultation.