On March 1, 2022, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) updated its guidance on religious accommodations and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Here are some highlights from the EEOC’s updated guidance:
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religion and includes the right of job applicants and employees to request a religious accommodation from an employer requirement that conflicts with their sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices or observances. The right to a religious accommodation under Title VII can extend to COVID-19 vaccine requirements and mandates.
Title VII protects both traditional and untraditional religious beliefs, practices or observances and includes those that may be unfamiliar to employers. Employers should generally presume that an employee’s religious belief, practice or observance is sincere, but employers may consider certain factors that might underestimate an employee’s credibility, including whether the timing of the request renders it suspect. Employers should not assume that a request is invalid merely because it is based on an unfamiliar religious belief, practice or observance, although employers may ask an employee to explain the religious nature of the employee’s belief, practice or observance.
Employees must make a request for a “religious accommodation” if they are requesting an exception to a COVID-19 requirement because of a conflict between that requirement and their sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices or observances. There are no “magic words” to make such a request, but employees need to explain the religious basis supporting an accommodation request and any conflict resulting in a potential inability to comply with an employer’s COVID-19 requirements for the workplace. The same guidance applies to employees who have a religious conflict with getting a particular COVID-19 vaccine and want to wait until a specific brand or alternative version of a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to them. If an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information. An employee who fails to cooperate with an employer’s reasonable requests for verification of the sincerity or religious nature of a professed belief, practice, or observance risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.
Employers should consider updating their religious accommodation policies within employee handbooks. Likewise, employers may wish to update language within their job applications or other form communications with applicants. The EEOC has released the request form that it utilizes for its own workplace, as an example of a religious accommodation request form that employers can tailor and utilize. The EEOC template can be accessed here.
Title VII’s protections do not extend to social, political or economic views, personal preferences or even concerns about the possible effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, if there is an overlap between a religious and political view, it is not automatically placed outside the scope of Title VII’s religious protections, as long as the view is part of a comprehensive belief system and not simply an isolated teaching.
Instead, when faced with an employee’s religious objection, employers should rely on objective information (e.g., whether the employee who is requesting the religious accommodation is working indoors or outdoors, what type of contact the employee has with others, how many employees have requested a religious accommodation, etc.) Determining whether a religious accommodation poses an undue hardship should be done on a case-by-case basis and documented.
For example, if unpaid leave is an employer’s proposed accommodation and there is a reasonable alternative accommodation that does not require a loss of benefit or privilege and would not impose undue hardship, the employer’s proposed accommodation would not be reasonable.
If you have any questions about this article or how it impacts your workplace, please contact Naureen Amjad, Riebana E. Sachs or any member of the Employment, Labor and Benefits Group.
©2022 Masuda, Funai, Eifert & Mitchell, Ltd. All rights reserved. This publication should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended solely for informational purposes and you should not act or rely upon information contained herein without consulting a lawyer for advice. This publication may constitute Advertising Material.