EEOC updates employer guidance for vaccine religious exemption  

By Jess McCluer, Vice President, Safety, Regulatory Affairs

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on Oct. 25 updated its COVID-19 technical guidance outlining procedures for religious objections to employer COVID-19 vaccination requirements, specifically relating to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The guidance focuses on questions that arise when applicants or employees seek exemptions from vaccine requirements. The seven key points from the EEOC’s update are:

1. Title VII does not require employers to exempt employees from vaccine requirements for their political, social, or economic reasons, which are not “religious beliefs.”
2. For an employer to be required to consider religious possible exemptions or accommodations, the applicant or employee must inform them by making a request. No “magic words” are required to ask for an accommodation.
3. Once the employer receives a request based on a religious belief or practice, they should assume that it is sincerely held, unless they have an “objective basis” for questioning either the religious nature or sincerity of the belief. The employer may also ask how the company’s vaccine requirement conflicts with the individual’s religious beliefs or practices.
4. Even though prior inconsistent conduct may raise a question regarding the sincerity of a person’s belief or practice, the EEOC recognizes that beliefs may change over time. Thus, a request may be “sincere” even if an individual acted inconsistently with a certain belief in the past.
5. Most assessments of religious accommodation requests will likely hinge on whether or not they would cause the business an “undue hardship.” At this stage, the EEOC says that the employer may consider not only costs, but also “the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.”
6. The employer should consider each request on the basis of “its specific factual context.” Thus, granting (or denying) one request does not necessarily mean that another request would result in the same result.
7. Significantly, although an assumption that many more employees may seek a religious accommodation in the future is not evidence of an undue hardship, the EEOC recognizes that employers may need to “take into account the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations” to many other employees.

President Joe Biden announced on Sept. 9 that a new rule will require all private employers with 100 or more employees to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or weekly testing for employees. The rule will be issued from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and implemented with an Emergency Temporary Standard. NGFA sent a letter on Sept. 20 reflecting the interests of its members in response to the directive.

In an Oct. 18 meeting with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and representatives from the Department of Labor and the White House, NGFA and the “Employers COVID-19 Prevention Coalition” covered its top priority issues for the implementation of the ETS.