By Tracey I. Levy and Alex Lapes
Recent updates to technical assistance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and guidance from the New York City Commission on Human Rights (Commission) reflect the continuously evolving expectations with regard to vaccine mandates and adherence to accommodation requirements under equal employment opportunity laws, and also highlight some differences in approach that New York City employers cannot overlook. The challenge for employers is that, while they are permitted (and in some cases required) to mandate that all employees who physically enter the workplace be vaccinated against COVID-19, when enforcing that mandate, they need to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who object to a vaccination requirement due to:
- pregnancy (either in its own right under New York law or for pregnancy-related conditions that constitute a disability under federal law); or
- a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.
The EEOC has updated its technical assistance Q&A’s on COVID-19 and EEO laws three separate times in the past month (October 13, 25, and 28, 2021), particularly Section K and new Section L, to address various issues that may arise when employers navigate vaccine-related accommodation requests. Piggybacking on the EEOC’s guidance, on November 1, 2021, the Commission updated its COVID-19 resources to adopt some, but not all, of the EEOC’s stance on the subject of accommodations.
Divergence on What Triggers Consideration of a Reasonable Accommodation
EEOC guidance clarifies that an employee or a third party (i.e. employee’s healthcare provider) must notify the employer of the need for a reasonable accommodation because of a qualifying reason. Under federal law, accommodation requests based on medical conditions (or underlying conditions) or religious beliefs or practices do not require the employer to initiate that process and, absent notice from the employee about such a request, employers have no obligation to inquire or take action, even if an employer knows an employee is at higher risk for severe illness if the employee contracts COVID-19.
Conversely, the Commission has stated that, under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), employers are required to initiate the conversation and to engage in a “cooperative dialogue” with an employee when the employer knows or has reason to know that the employee may require a reasonable accommodation. For example, a New York City employer who knows that an employee has a medical condition that might place the employee at “higher risk for severe illness” if the employee contracts COVID-19 is required under city law to engage with the employee in a cooperative dialogue about a potential accommodation, even without the employee requesting one. In order to satisfy this obligation, the Commission recommends New York City employers remind all staff of the employer’s policies regarding reasonable accommodations and the process for requesting those accommodations.
The EEOC and the Commission are consistent on their guidance that simply asking for information to confirm whether an employee is vaccinated against COVID-19 is permissible and is not a disability-related inquiry. However, employers who require employees to provide medical documentation on vaccine status must ensure that, as with all medical information, it is kept confidential and separate from other personnel files.
Under federal law, unless an employee has a pregnancy-related condition that qualifies as a disability, the EEOC has explained that employers are encouraged but not required to explore reasonable accommodations for a pregnant employee. The EEOC further noted that employers must ensure pregnant employees receive the same job modifications (including changes to work schedules, telework, or changes to work schedules or assignments) in response to their pregnancy-related accommodation requests as would other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work.
The Commission goes one step beyond the EEOC, and affirmatively requires employers to engage in a cooperative dialogue and explore possible accommodations for a pregnant employee who requests an exemption from a vaccination mandate.
Religious Objection to Vaccination
Most of the new EEOC guidance pertains to religious objections to an employer’s vaccine mandate, and in that context the NYC Commission has explicitly adopted the following provisions from the EEOC’s guidance:
- Employees and applicants must inform their employer if they seek exemption from a vaccine mandate based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. While there are no “magic words”, the employee or applicant has an obligation to notify the employer if there is a conflict between their religious beliefs and the employer’s vaccine mandate.
- Employers are permitted to ask the employee to explain how the employee’s religious beliefs conflict with the employer’s vaccine mandate. Employers have no obligation to accommodate employees who seek exceptions to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement based on social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences. Therefore, the EEOC has stated, and the Commission has agreed, employers are permitted to make a limited factual inquiry and seek additional information from the employee, if they have an objective basis to question the sincerity of a particular belief. Factors to be considered in evaluating the credibility of an employee’s sincerity as to a religious belief include prior inconsistent conduct (with the caveat that employees need not be scrupulous in their religious observance), whether the accommodation benefit would likely be sought for nonreligious reasons, whether the timing of the request makes it suspect, and whether the employer has other reason to believe the accommodation is not for religious reasons.
- Significantly, though, when weighing these factors, employers also need to be mindful that the definition of religion is broad and protects both the major organized religions and “religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others.” The EEOC’s own religious accommodation request form, which it offers as an example of an appropriate scope of inquiry, is very limited in its probing of an individual’s religious beliefs.
- Employers do not need to grant the requests of all employees who seek an accommodation based on religion. Employers are permitted to take into account the cumulative cost or burden of granting accommodations to other employees and should evaluate religious objections on a case-by-case basis depending on the specific factual circumstances of the employer’s business. As with all accommodations, if more than one accommodation would effectively eliminate the religious conflict, then the employer may choose which accommodation to offer. An employer may also discontinue a previously granted accommodation based on changed circumstances, although the EEOC suggests as a best practice that employers discuss and evaluate alternative accommodations with the employee before discontinuing a religious accommodation.
The Commission has further expressed its agreement with the EEOC’s guidance that employers need not accommodate an employee’s belief if the employer demonstrates “undue hardship” on its operations. In practice, however, the EEOC and the Commission define undue hardship in this context quite differently. A minimal cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship under Title VII and employers may consider direct monetary costs as well as the burden on the employer to prevent the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or the public. The EEOC’s guidance notes an employer may consider whether the employee works alone or with others, their contact with the public, and especially their contact with vulnerable individuals.
In contrast, the NYCHRL defines undue hardship as “an accommodation requiring significant expense or difficulty (including a significant interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or violation of a bona fide seniority system).” New York City employers should consider such factors as the identifiable cost of the accommodation, how many individuals will need the accommodation based on religion, and for employers with multiple facilities, the degree to which geographic separateness or administrative or fiscal relationship will make the accommodation more or less difficult. Notably, under the NYCHRL, a religious accommodation will only be deemed an undue hardship “if it will result in the inability of an employee who is seeking a religious accommodation to perform the essential functions of the position.”
Employers in New York need to be ever mindful that compliance with federal requirements and guidance from the EEOC, OSHA, the CDC and other federal government agencies merely sets the floor in terms of legal standards. New York State and New York City can and have been imposing additional obligations on employers and granting greater protections for employees in the context of addressing COVID-19. New York City employers who mandate vaccinations need to ensure their policies and procedures allow employees to request an exemption from that requirement as a reasonable accommodation and entertain that request in a manner that does not discriminate or treat differently any employees based on protected characteristics.