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Legally Speaking: Know your rights when it comes to whether your employer can require you to get a COVID-19 vaccine

3News legal analyst Stephanie Haney breaks down what your employer can require you to do and Dr. Sharona Hoffman weighs in on the possibility of a state order
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

CLEVELAND — Legal analysis: There’s been a lot of talk about who will and who won’t get the brand new COVID-19 vaccine when it comes out, and at this point, some people won’t have a choice, if they want to keep their jobs.

Legally speaking, with a few exceptions, your place of employment can require you to get a vaccine of any kind. That includes a vaccine for COVID-19, when one becomes available.

When people consider these scenarios, they often think they only apply to people working in hospitals, but that is not the case.

It's just as likely that a teacher, a barista, a firefighter or even a newsperson could be told it's company policy that all employees must get a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes widely available to the public.

It's also possible the Ohio Department of Health could issue an order requiring people to get COVID-19 vaccines, which is something I talked about with Dr. Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

"We've seen mask orders, we've seen stay-at-home orders, and so I think it's very likely we'll see some vaccination orders," Professor Hoffman said.

If things get to that point, Professor Hoffman said it's likely we'll see protests over the issue.

I reached out to Governor Mike DeWine's team to ask if that's something being looked at now, and was told his office "cannot speculate on potential additions or changes to current orders at this time."

Clearly, we're not quite there yet, because a COVID-19 vaccine hasn't even been approved, but the policies already in place for things like flu shots are telling. And there are compromises at some workplaces, like at medical facilities where doctors and nurses can choose to either wear a mask or get the flu shot. Policies like that are not new, and have been in place for years.

One nurse I spoke with told me that because masks are already required right now by state order, she and a lot of her coworkers won’t be getting that vaccine this year.

At other places, like The Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, employees don’t have that option.

But there are legally recognized exemptions to employer-required vaccines, no matter what the policy is at your job.

First, pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can opt out if you have a medical condition that would make it harmful for you to receive a vaccine, for example if you’re allergic to one of its ingredients. 

Second, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, if vaccines are against your religious beliefs, you can also decline to participate.

And there is a third possibility, for moral beliefs. This is an extension of the religious beliefs exemption, with a common example being if a person is vegan and does not want to get a vaccine because it contains egg products.

That case can be harder to make, and you may need to be prepared to go to court if that's the grounds on which you're refusing to get a company-required vaccine.

Professor Hoffman agreed that those same exemptions would also likely be incorporated if the state does eventually issue an order requiring groups of people to get COVID-19 vaccines.

If you don’t fall into one of these three groups for an exemption, it is possible that you could lose your job if you refuse to get a vaccine that is required at your place of work.

Companies are working on their COVID-19 policies now, so it’s a great time to try to get ahead of this issue and let your employer know how you feel, to try and shape that policy before you’re forced to make that choice.

Stephanie Haney is licensed to practice law in both Ohio and California.

The information in this article is provided for general informational purposes only. None of the information in this article is offered, nor should it be construed, as legal advice on any matter.