Can employers ‘out’ unvaccinated employees?

Attorney David BetrasRecently one of our Facebook followers messaged us this important and interesting question:

“Can an employer ask workers if they have been vaccinated for COVID-19 and are they allowed to ‘out’ those who have and have not?”

Like most employment issues related to the pandemic, the answer to that straightforward question is complicated, multi-faceted, and evolving. But I am certainly willing to take a shot at responding.

I want to preface the discussion by reminding everyone of two critically important facts: First, employers are generally permitted to require all workers to be vaccinated. Second, workers who refuse may be disciplined and/or fired unless they are protected by a union contract, have a disability or object to getting a shot due to sincerely held religious beliefs.

Employers must offer people who fall into the latter two categories “reasonable accommodations” that will enable them to continue to work.

Now let us consider whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) permits employers to ask workers if they have been vaccinated. According to guidance issued late last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the answer is yes as long as inquiry does not elicit information about a disability that would trigger the ADA’s requirement that all inquiries be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

Tip for employers: You do not want to do that.

To avoid running afoul of the ADA, employers should do the following when requesting vaccination information:

• Design the request so it is not likely to elicit information about a disability;
• Do not ask why a worker was not vaccinated;
• Warn employees not to provide any medical information when providing proof of vaccination.

Employers also have the right to ask for any number of reasons: to verify compliance with a vaccine mandate; prove that an employee has qualified for a vaccination incentive; to determine if an employee can return to work on-site; to comply with a customer’s demands that a vendor’s workforce has been vaccinated; or to inform the public that workers at a restaurant, store or other type of business that involves interaction with patrons have received their shots.

In fact, I can envision “Guaranteed COVID-19 Free” becoming a popular advertising slogan in the months ahead.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what employers may do, it is time to address what they may not do: They cannot “out” or identify workers who have or have not been vaccinated.

While it is generally legal to ask the question, it may be considered a medical inquiry which would make each employee’s response confidential medical information protected under statutory and common law. The law also obliges employers to protect workers’ personal and health information including their vaccination status.

I urge employers to take all steps necessary to meet that obligation.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the column, COVID-19 employment law is evolving rapidly so businesses and workers should protect themselves by keeping up to date with their rights and obligations.

While the pandemic is, hopefully, coming to an end, it may take years to resolve the legal issues and lawsuits it has spawned. I will do my best to keep my readers informed.

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