A nursse unpacks a refrigerated box of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines...

A nursse unpacks a refrigerated box of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts on Thursday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/JOSEPH PREZIOSO

A pair of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been approved by the FDA and are being distributed to health care workers and nursing home residents across Long Island.

But as the distribution begins to filter down to the majority of the general population, questions remain whether employers can, and will, make coronavirus vaccination mandatory for their employees. Here are some critical questions:

Can my employer require me to get the COVID vaccine?

The short answer is yes, but with some exceptions. Private employers are legally permitted to define basic working conditions and can adopt health and safety standards for their workspace. Requiring employees to get vaccinated against diseases that could compromise health and safety in the workplace would be viewed as part of that ability, experts say.

On Dec. 16, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines stating that employers have the right to impose a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. The EEOC, the federal agency in charge of enforcing laws to prohibit discrimination in the workplace, previously allowed companies to mandate the flu vaccine.

"Employers generally have wide scope" to make rules for the workplace, said Dorit Reiss, a law professor who specializes in vaccine policies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. "It's their business."

Are there exceptions that would allow me to refuse to take the vaccine?

Yes, people can request exemptions for medical or religious reasons. But they are rare and fit specific criteria.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stipulates that if an employee has a "sincerely-held religious belief" that prevents them from taking the vaccine the employer cannot require the worker to be vaccinated.

Are there exemptions for medical disabilities?

Yes, the Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates that if an employee has a medical disability and cannot safety receive a vaccine, it cannot be mandated by the employer.

What if an employee does not want to take the vaccine for political reasons?

There is no political exemption. Social, political and economic beliefs — or a general "anti-vaxxer" position — are not considered a protected group under Title VII.

What if an employer cannot grant an accommodation to the employee?

If an employee qualifies for a religious or disability exemption, the business must try to provide a reasonable accommodation for the worker, such as switching them from working in the office to working from home while COVID-19 poses risks to public health, the guidelines stated.

But businesses do not have to grant an accommodation if it will cause them an "undue hardship," either because it's too costly, logistically burdensome or if it would compromise the health and safety of other employees. Under those circumstances, the employer would have the legal right to "exclude that employee from the workplace," according to the EEOC guidance.

Under those circumstances, would an employer be allowed to terminate an employee for refusing vaccination?

Not automatically. Before termination, an employer must determine whether the employee would be subject to any other local, state or federal regulations and if union labor rules would apply, But if no other possible accommodation can be made, an employee could potentially be terminated for refusing the vaccine, labor experts said.

With The Associated Press

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