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Can employees be required to get vaccinated? Panelists weigh in

Lisa M. Griffith, an attorney with labor law

Lisa M. Griffith, an attorney with labor law firm Littler Mendelson, was part of an online town hall Monday hosted by Newsday and the Long Island Association. Credit: Victor Ocasio

As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, employees and employers will have to grapple with resistance to vaccination, a panel of labor, legal and medical experts said Monday. And though employers are entitled to require the shots in most cases, the experts agreed that conversation is key.

Speaking at a NewsdayLive webinar hosted by Newsday and the Long Island Association, panelists answered audience questions about the rights of workers and businesses.

Medical conditions, vaccine-related allergies or religious objections can exempt employees from the requirement to be vaccinated, said Lisa M. Griffith, an attorney with labor law firm Littler Mendelson. "An employer can require a vaccination," she said, but she added that good-faith conversations and reasonable accommodations are key.

"The employer may have to consider alternatives to a vaccination," Griffith said. Continued mask mandates, providing a separate office or workspace, or requiring that an employee work from home could all be viable workarounds.

What accommodations are available, however, will vary according to the type of work being done. "The answer is, it depends," Griffith said.

Roger Clayman, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor, which represents over 250,000 union members on Long Island, said that when it comes to the issue of workplace vaccine mandates and union workers, it’s a matter best handled through discussion between both groups.

"It’s a matter of negotiation — but at some point, it may not be," Clayman said. "We have a history of speaking to each other and solving problems in a way that works well for both labor and management."

Clayman added that as vaccines become more available, union leadership "may be on the same side'' as employers in some cases when accommodations can’t be made.

Clayman said that unions are well positioned to get the right information out that keeps employees safe, including information on vaccines. "We’re in that era right now where we’ve been confronted by conspiracy [theories] ," he said. "We have to stand up to it."

While false theories about the vaccine have popped up on social media since their rollout, Dr. Michele C. Reed, owner and medical director of MS Family Medicine Health Care, said outreach and education can help.

"Talk to your doctor or allergist," she said. "In some cases we’re pre-medicating people before they take their vaccine" to avoid or lessen any reaction.

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