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  • As pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted and we go back to work, can your current (or prospective) employer force you to be vaccinated?
  • Experts say the law is clear: COVID-19 vaccination can be required as a condition of employment, with certain caveats.
  • U.S. law provides certain conditions when you can refuse vaccination and keep your job.

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With the recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, we’re beginning to see intense effort to ensure every person in the United States is protected against the virus.

“The FDA’s authorization for emergency use of the first COVID-19 vaccine is a significant milestone in battling this devastating pandemic that has affected so many families in the United States and around the world,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD, in a statement.

However, about 4 in 10 people in the country said they would “definitely” or “probably” not get a vaccine, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

Swift and widespread vaccination could help restart an economy severely affected by lockdown and restrictions.

About 12 million people will lose their unemployment benefits this month when the CARES Act provisions lapse, CNBC reported. This coincides with a lapse in federal protections for renters and those with outstanding student loans.

But as we approach a new normal, we’ll face unprecedented decisions about health and work.

A significant number of people have concerns regarding COVID-19 vaccine safety, and intend to “wait and see,” before deciding to be vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said that U.S. employers could require employees to be vaccinated against the flu in its 2009 guidance on pandemic preparedness.

As pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted and we go back to work, can your current (or prospective) employer force you to be vaccinated?

“Yes, for the most part, employers can mandate that employees be vaccinated,” University of Michigan law professor Kate Andrias told Healthline. “However, there are some exceptions.”

One exception falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, “an employer must provide reasonable accommodations to workers who have medical conditions that make them unable to take the vaccine, if a reasonable accommodation is possible,” she said.

Another exception is covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to Andrias, Title VII says employees may be able to refuse vaccinations if they have a sincerely held religious belief that precludes vaccination, and not being vaccinated doesn’t impose an undue hardship on the employer.

However, “a personal or political opposition to vaccination is not sufficient,” she clarified.

“Employers can and have fired employees based on lifestyle choices related to their health, including if they smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol,” said Holly Helstrom, an adjunct instructor at Columbia University who teaches First Amendment rights for employees.

“Refusal to get a COVID vaccine if your employer is requiring one could get you fired and your employer would be within their legal rights to do so,” she said.

According to Helstrom, “your employer is within their legal rights to require you to get a COVID vaccine, if you work for a private sector at-will employer.”

She said that this is a product of how U.S. labor law and the Constitution are written.

For unionized workers, rules around vaccination “would likely be a subject for bargaining,” Helstrom said.

“Employers should be precautious in mandating that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Lawrence Spasojevich Esq. of the law firm Aidala, Bertuna & Kamin.

“With the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission yet to release official guidelines,” he said, “employers should address a vaccine mandate on an employee-by-employee basis, if possible, or provide an avenue to receive and address an employee’s concerns.”

Spasojevich emphasized that employers should consult with state and local officials or legal counsel as to the relationship between vaccine requirements and statutory obligations, such as the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

“Particularly relating to religious beliefs,” he explained. “Even with vaccine distribution, employers should continue to follow the guidance provided by the [CDC], state, and local officials to ensure a safe workplace.”

Employers may be able to require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but is it the right thing to do? Employers may not want to put their employees in the position of getting a shot they don’t want or face termination.

When navigating complex questions such as these, “having clarity on one’s values, whether from the employer’s or employee’s perspective, can make the decision easier,” Andrias said.

Andrias said that if individual liberty is more important to you than job security, “your decision when navigating this question as an employee will be much easier.”

FDA approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine brings questions about how much employers can demand from employees as a condition of employment. This includes whether employees would be required to take the new vaccine.

Experts say the law is clear: COVID-19 vaccination can be required as a condition of employment, with certain caveats.

U.S. law provides certain conditions when you can refuse vaccination and keep your job.

Experts also say the EEOC has yet to release official guidelines, and advise employers to address a vaccine mandate on an employee-by-employee basis.