Can You Be Fired for Not Getting the COVID Vaccine?
October 14th, 2021
With over half of all Americans now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, some employers have begun slowly transitioning back to working in-person. And in doing so, many of those employers have implemented vaccine mandates.
As a result, and perhaps to no surprise, some employees have either quit or been fired for not getting the COVID vaccine. We are frequently asked questions about refusing vaccination; most often: (1) does the law protect my job if I refuse to get vaccinated; and (2) if I get fired or I quit for refusing vaccination, can my employer deny my unemployment benefits?
Question 1 – Does the Law Protect My Job? Title VII & ADA Limitations
Like most questions in the law, it depends. While employer-mandated vaccines are lawful, Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. As it relates to workplace mandated vaccines, the EEOC provides that employers must provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who do not get vaccinated for COVID-19 due to a sincerely held religious belief, unless providing such accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the employer. Under Title VII, courts define “undue hardship” as having more than minimal cost or burden on the employer. Considerations relevant to this determination include, among other things, the proportion of employees in the workplace who already are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the extent of employee contact with non-employees, whose vaccination status could be unknown or who may be ineligible for the vaccine.
The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of an employee’s disability. As it relates to workplace mandated vaccines, the EEOC provides that an employer may require an individual with a disability to get vaccinated if the standard is job-related and consistent with business necessity. If a particular employee cannot meet such a safety-related qualification standard because of a disability, the employer may not require compliance for that employee unless it can demonstrate that the individual would pose a “direct threat” to the health or safety of the employee or others in the workplace. A “direct threat” (defined as a “significant risk of substantial harm” that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation).
Question 2 – Unemployment Eligibility Requirements
In Minnesota and many other states, individuals must demonstrate that they are out of work through no fault of their own to collect unemployment benefits. Although people who have lost their jobs or had their hours significantly reduced because of COVID-19 may generally qualify for unemployment benefits, states have yet to clarify whether this remains true when an employee is fired or has hours significantly reduced for refusing to get vaccinated. In June 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) updated its guidelines to address this exact concern.
EEOC guidelines provide that vaccine mandates are just like any other workplace safety guideline, and if an employee is fired for not following such a guideline they generally will be unable to collect unemployment, because they were fired for good cause. This would be akin to an employee refusing to submit to a permissible drug test or participate in safety training. However, employers must still adhere to federal employment non-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who, because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, do not get vaccinated for COVID-19.
Workplace mandated vaccines have raised many questions, and they are often difficult to navigate. As an employee, you have rights, and the attorneys at Halunen Law are committed to ensuring that they are protected.
If you have just been fired, or you suspect you are about to be fired, and you think that your termination may be predicated on an illegal reason (e.g., discrimination), the experienced attorneys at Halunen Law are here to help. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Halunen Law employment attorney Blaine Balow has an excellent record of recovery for his clients. However, all cases are judged on their individual facts, and there is no guarantee of success. He is part of an elite group of 2.5% of Minnesota attorneys who are under the age of 40 or have practiced law less than ten years to be selected to the Super Lawyers list as a “Rising Star.”
 42 U.S. Code § 2000e (1964).
 29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r).