$300,000 For A Flu Vaccine?

The title is a little misleading.  What was the $300,000 for?

It was the amount that a company had to pay in settling an EEOC case when it refused to accommodate an employee’s religious belief which prohibits vaccinations.

Religious Discrimination Is An Increasing Workplace Problem

The EEOC has stated that “Religious discrimination remains an issue in the American workplace. In fiscal year 2015, EEOC received 3,502 charges alleging discrimination on the basis of religion, with the top issues alleged being discharge, harassment, terms and conditions of employment, and reasonable accommodation.”

As I’ve written before, the majority of cases I’ve seen fall into two categories: those where religious faith requires employees to refrain from working on certain days, such as the Sabbath, and those where religiously-required dress or grooming of an employee is not in compliance with a corporate ‘appearance’ policy.

Another, albeit less frequent category if cases involves employees who refuse medical intervention for religious reasons.  Such is the case of an employee at a Pennsylvania health center who, on religious grounds, refused a vaccination and was fired.  The EEOC just settled that case for $300,000.

The New Settlement

The health center had implemented a policy of mandatory seasonal flu vaccination unless an employee was granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons.  If the exemption was granted, the employee was required to wear a face mask around patients during flu season.  If no exemption was granted, the employee would be fired.

During the 2013-14 flu season, the health center granted 14 exemptions for medical  reasons, but denied exemptions to all 6 employees who claimed a religious reason for refusing the vaccination.  These employees  were then fired.

Some time ago I quoted an EEOC attorney who said that “Employers must respect employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs and carefully consider requests made by employees based on those beliefs.”

What Is A Sincerely Held Belief?

Well, the health center in this case was schooled on this issue.

The EEOC spelled it out in the consent decree which it required the PA health center to enter.  It requires that “when considering requests for religious accommodation, the Health Center must adhere to the definition of ‘religion’ established by Title VII and controlling federal court decisions, a definition that forbids employers from rejecting accommodation requests based on their disagreement with an employee’s belief; their opinion that the belief is unfounded, illogical, or inconsistent in some way; or their conclusion that an employee’s belief is not an official tenet or endorsed teaching of any particular religion or denomination.”

The Requirement To Accommodate Is Key

An EEOC attorney said of this case: “While Title VII does not prohibit health care employers from adopting seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their workers, those requirements, like any other employment rules, are subject to the employer’s Title VII duty to provide reasonable accommodation for religion.  In that context, reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.”

Takeaway:   As I’ve said before, unless it creates an undue burden, an employee’s religious practices and beliefs must be accommodated by an employer.   And seeking such an accommodation through an interactive process with the employee is a must.

Moreover, most religious accommodations are not unduly costly!

For employers and everyone else involved in the workplace, the EEOC “has developed information to educate employers, employees, and the public about religious discrimination, including Questions and Answers: Religious Discrimination in the Workplace and Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace.  Last December, EEOC released docu­ments for employees and employers that focused on discrimination against people who are or are perceived to be Muslim or Middle Eastern, and an accompanying background summary.”



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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]