As more employers require workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, they're bracing for a wave of religious exemption requests.
Vaccine mandates, like those implemented at companies including United Airlines, McDonald's and local hospitals, typically exempt employees with sincere religious objections. Those objections will present employers with an uncomfortable challenge: For the first time, many companies will have to assess the sincerity of workers’ asserted religious beliefs and—as required by workplace laws—craft workplace accommodations for those who are excused.
It’s a thicket few relish wading into. Taking a hard line could hurt morale and open the door for liability under laws banning religious discrimination. But a lax approach could undermine vaccine mandates, potentially exposing employees and customers to infection.
Employers will have to come up with fair standards for evaluating exemption claims. Since religion encompasses a broad range of beliefs, practices and observances, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises companies to assume a worker’s religious accommodation request is sincere.
“Employers are treading into really murky waters if they try to interrogate one’s stated sincere religious beliefs,” says Valerie Gutmann Koch, director of law and ethics at the University of Chicago's MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. “There has to be, to some extent, an assumption that individuals are being open and honest about why they’re refusing the vaccine.”
But that doesn’t prevent employers from asking for additional information if there’s reason to question the nature or sincerity of a particular claim. Without a road map from the EEOC, how companies go about that process will differ. Lawyers say having set protocols in place is key.
Most employers aren’t keen to discuss their plans for evaluating religious exemption claims, possibly for fear of helping people manipulate the system. Representatives from some local hospitals and United Airlines declined interview requests. McDonald’s didn't respond to a request for comment.
Companies are expected to deny politically motivated exemption requests, as well as those based on misinformation, including false claims that the shots contain microchips or cause infertility. But the validity of some other requests will be less clear since religion is broadly defined. It encompasses not only organized religions, but also moral beliefs and personal interpretations of passages in sacred texts, says Poonam Lakhani, an employment attorney at The Prinz Law Firm in Chicago.
In some cases, “employers are going to have to do a little bit of homework,” Lakhani says. “How is this person practicing these beliefs in other aspects of their life. . . .If somebody says veganism and you see them having a cheeseburger at lunch, I think you could very easily question their motive.”
Healthcare organizations are among the best-equipped to manage religious exemption requests, having long mandated annual flu shots. But even hospital systems say they’ve refined their processes as they prepare for large numbers of COVID-related exemption requests.
Shortly after announcing that all workers and volunteers are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, Rush University Medical Center formed a committee to manage religious and medical exemption requests. The committee includes representatives from chaplaincy services, infectious disease care, legal and labor relations.
“With the COVID vaccine being mandated and there being much more scrutiny and attention on how it’s handled—much more than the annual flu vaccine—we thought this was the perfect time to” create a more robust and consistent process, says committee leader Lisa Weichman Harries, Rush’s director of operations for employee and corporate health services.
To ensure the process for requesting religious exemptions is equitable, Rush got rid of a previous requirement that workers submit a letter from their religious organization confirming the sincerity of their beliefs.
Employees with approved exemptions will be required to abide by additional safety measures like masking, social distancing and quarantine requirements. Those measures will evolve over time “to make sure the hospital is as safe as possible,” Harries says, noting that 85 percent of workers already are vaccinated at the Near West Side flagship hospital and Rush Oak Park Hospital.
Advocate Aurora Health also has a committee reviewing religious exemption requests. Its job “is not to judge the validity of a religious belief, but to evaluate the connection between the belief and the justification for exemption,” the 26-hospital system says in an emailed statement.
“If somebody already asked for an exemption for the flu, it makes sense they would ask for COVID,” Lakhani says. “But if they didn’t for flu, you might question it.”
Houston Methodist in Texas was the first large hospital chain in the nation to implement a COVID vaccine mandate, effective June 7. The seven-hospital network had 285 people—roughly 1 percent of the workforce—qualify for a medical or religious exemption.
Meanwhile, vaccines have been mandatory for workers at the Chicago restaurant group behind the Berkshire Room and Roots Handmade Pizza since July 15. The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group had less than 10 exemptions out of 600 employees, co-owner Scott Weiner says, noting that he granted every request he received. Some were from pregnant or nursing employees and at least one was for religious reasons.
No employees quit because of the mandate, Weiner says, but several candidates walked out of job interviews as a result of the policy.
“It’s a little crushing when you’re a chef who’s struggling to staff your kitchen and you finally get someone who shows up to an interview and doesn’t want the job because of the vaccine,” Weiner says.
The availability of three different coronavirus vaccines gives employers more leeway in handling exemption requests. For example, an employee who objects to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it's produced with fetal cells could be required to take the Pfizer or Moderna shots, which have been deemed "morally acceptable" by the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops.
When an exemption is approved, an employer has to figure out if a reasonable accommodation of the unvaccinated worker is possible. Some companies will consider telework opportunities. Others will require masking and routine testing.
But not all unvaccinated employees will keep their jobs at companies mandating COVID shots. Workers that interact with customers or patients may pose too great a risk for employers.
Lawyers say courts tend to side with businesses in cases related to flu vaccine mandates. And it’s even more likely that will be the case with COVID shots.
“When you’re in a public health crisis like this,” Koch says, “we’re not supposed to be focused on each individual at the expense of the entire community.”
—Ally Marotti contributed to this report.