Reopen Your Office Safely and Legally

Now that millions of COVID-19 vaccines are getting into arms each day, more employers are feeling comfortable with reopening physical workspaces. With the reopening of offices, though, comes an assortment of legal and practical considerations. In any context, proactive communication and clear expectation setting can help grease the wheels for a smooth return to normality.

There is one question on many employers’ minds, though: “Am I allowed to require my employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine prior to returning to the office?” Yes, you are allowed. The way you communicate and implement this policy, though, will largely determine the effectiveness of the policy itself. Perhaps no other event in modern history has been so clouded by misinformation (and disinformation), so you should anticipate having to educate your employees on the merits and effectiveness of the vaccines approved for Emergency Use Authorization.

Encouraging Employees

Many employers have seen success by offering incentives to employees in exchange for receiving the vaccine. One-time bonuses are being deployed by some employers. Extra paid time off, either supplementary or to help employees recover from the potential side effects, may also be considered. Employees who are still skeptical may simply need some time to observe their peers who do receive the vaccine.

Objecting on Religious Grounds

Georgia employees may refuse a COVID-19 vaccine based on a “sincerely held” religious practice or observance. The EEOC issued guidelines in late 2020 indicating that employees might be well within their rights to refuse a vaccine on religious grounds, but that exception does not apply if it would cause an undue hardship for an employer. The legal concept of an undue hardship is not well-defined in this context, meaning that employers should stay on top of legal updates related to vaccine requirements. 

ADA Considerations

Besides religious grounds, the other legal avenue appearing to favor employees who don’t wish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine passes through the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some employees with disabilities may have medical conditions that would cause an especially adverse reaction to the vaccine. However, employers may still implement a mandatory vaccine policy if not doing so would pose a direct and substantial threat to other employees. In this situation, the employer and employee would need to commence an interactive process in order to arrive at a reasonable accommodation for the employee. 

Should You Continue Remote Work Policies?

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated certain employment trends; one of these trends is remote work. Nearly 20 percent of employees work remotely full-time, and well over half of businesses now offer remote work options for employees. Many employers realized cost savings and increased productivity with remote work, and it stands to reason that plenty of companies will continue to offer telecommuting. Still, employers are not obligated to continue allowing employees to work remotely in the absence of a reasonable accommodation. 

Only after a thorough review of your company’s needs and objectives can you make a decision on vaccine requirements and work-from-home policies. Some employers instituted a haphazard telecommuting policy for COVID and simply haven’t had the opportunity to reflect on the merits of an indefinite option for working remotely. 

Baker Jenner provides legal counsel for savvy startups, middle-market movers and shakers, and other firms in highly regulated and technical fields. Our representation and entrepreneurial insight can provide a bulwark against an array of internal and external threats. We would be grateful for a chance to connect with you sometime soon.

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Baker Jenner LLLP

Baker Jenner LLLP is a business solutions law firm. We partner with clients to achieve their goals while managing transactional, regulatory, and legal risks.

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