Can employers require workers to get the coronavirus vaccine?

The long-awaited vaccine that could help stop coronavirus in its tracks is almost here. Its widespread availability could give consumers, business owners and workers the confidence to return to life as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in unprecedented social restrictions starting earlier this year.   

But if the U.S. reluctance to embrace masks, social distancing and other basic anti-coronavirus guidelines is any indication, there’s bound to be a fight against taking the vaccine in somer corners of the country. That could pose a problem in the workplace, and many employees wonder whether a coronavirus vaccination will be required to return to the office.

“The simple answer to the question is yes,” Seattle employment attorney Tim Emery told KIRO 7 news, noting that there are no specific laws stopping employers from making the vaccine mandatory.

“There are employers in Washington state right now that require vaccines across the board,” Emery said. “I can think of multiple employers that do.”

The countrywide state of emergency arising from the pandemic has created a unique sense of urgency to subdue the coronavirus as quickly as possible, which may bolster the case for making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for all workers. Yet the laws around such requirements tend to fluctuate, Emery said, noting that employers used to be able to require genetic testing.

“There’s no question that an employer can require masks. There’s no question that an employer can require other safety precautions. But I don’t think there’s an easy answer in this situation for whether an employer can mandate a vaccine,” said Emery.

There are a number of exceptions workers could cite for refusing to take the vaccine, including religious beliefs, medical conditions or contractual obligations.

Whether employers will try to get around such exceptions by favoring workers willing to vaccinate is an open question. Because Washington is an at-will employment state, employers can legally fire staff without warning or cause.

One Seattle business owner told KIRO 7 that he plans to tell all of his employees to get a vaccine as soon as it is available.

“My gut feeling is you need to,” he said. “I would definitely hire someone who was willing to take it over someone who wasn’t.”

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us for a free consultation if you have a claim related to coronavirus, workers’ compensation, L&I, or other employment law matter. You won’t get better advice.

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