As vaccines for COVID-19 become more widely available, churches, institutions and organizations are discussing whether to mandate COVID vaccines for employees. Debates are underway in venues hit hardest by the pandemic, including school districts, cruise-line companies, nursing homes, and churches.
The debate involves federal and state laws, FDA wording, and numerous exemptions and accommodations. Although mandating vaccines can result in costly litigation, legal experts say employers can take steps to encourage and even reward compliance. In addition, churches and ministries can emphasize that getting immunized against COVID-19 is an easy, practical way to resume normal operations and express love for the entire community.
What the Law Says About Whether Your Church Can Mandate COVID Vaccines
The COVID vaccines currently being administered in the United States have received “emergency use authorization” (EUA), not licensure, from the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Clinical trials, which typically take about two years, must be completed in order for the FDA to take the final step of licensing each vaccine.
Under federal law, individuals have “the option to accept or refuse” any EUA product or medication. According to the CDC, under the EUA, “vaccines are not allowed to be mandatory”—not even in hospital settings. (When licensing is complete, however, some health care settings that serve medically vulnerable patient populations can mandate certain vaccines.)
Vaccine providers and recipients must receive fact sheets that clearly state the COVID-19 immunization is optional—and that if you refuse to accept it, “your standard of medical care” won’t be affected.
Although state laws vary, they usually protect employees who are covered under federal statutes. In 23 states, legislators who cite concerns about personal freedom are trying to ban employers from being able to mandate COVID vaccines. State laws that require schoolchildren be vaccinated contain opt-out provisions for medical, religious, and philosophical objections.
In December, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers can mandate COVID vaccines but must accommodate religious objections and can’t discriminate against employees with disabilities. Examples of accommodations include altering someone’s job duties and allowing remote-working options.
Attorney Melissa Gonzalez Boyce recommends that workplaces tread carefully and take the pulse of employees. Consider their responses to safety protocols that went into place during the past year, she says. “If a large segment of your workforce resisted wearing a mask or resisted social distancing…that should give a clear indication as to where your workforce falls on the vaccine front,” she notes.
Employers Can Strongly Encourage But Not Mandate COVID Vaccines
Experts who say COVID-19 vaccines most likely can’t be required are quick to point out that employers can strongly encourage them—and even offer incentives to increase worker compliance. They recommend that organizations ramp up communications and other educational efforts to tout the shots’ importance, safety, and efficacy. As long as those efforts aren’t considered coercive and as long as employees understand that their compliance is voluntary, employers will likely remain within their legal bounds.
Employment lawyer Lindsay Ryan recommends that accommodations be offered whenever possible. Otherwise, she says, “pushback from fearful employees” is likely. Attempts to make COVID-19 vaccines a requirement could lead to low employee morale and even the loss of employees, she adds. After all, some people have allergies or reactions to immunizations, and groups such as pregnant women may have legitimate safety concerns.
It’s possible to achieve high vaccination rates without forcing the issue, says Dr. Howard Forman of Yale University. He tells CNBC about once agreeing to receive a flu shot in exchange for a slice of cake. “You can create small financial incentives,” says Forman. “You can give people discounts on co-pays. You can do things with insurance that would make getting a vaccine better than free.”