New wave of COVID-19 infections brings workplace vaccination requirements

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Since the nationwide rollout of coronavirus vaccines less than eight months ago, government agencies and health officials have used virtually every tool at their disposal – short of a mandate – to convince Americans to get the shots. But a new wave of outbreaks fueled by an aggressive new COVID-19 strain, known as the Delta variant, has shown that those efforts may not be enough, and some of the nation’s largest government and health care employers are now resorting to the mandate option.

“Despite everything — cajoling, making access readily available at any pharmacy, making it free, having the president plead — all of this hasn’t really moved the needle very much in the nation,” Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania told the Washington Post. 

Emanuel organized a joint statement from almost 60 of the country’s biggest medical groups to rally health facilities to require the vaccine for all employees.  

The same day, the US federal government’s Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates one of the country’s largest healthcare systems, announced its decision to mandate coronavirus vaccines for its front line workers. So did the state of California, New York city and numerous hospitals nationwide, including the Mayo Clinic.

Washington state has not yet followed suit. Guidance on Department of Health’s website remains unchanged on the topic, stating, “Washington is not currently considering any mandates for the vaccine, but employers could require it.”

But the moves by major employers like the VA, California and New York are reviving questions about whether employers can and will legally require staff to get vaccinated. 

In December, Seattle employment attorney Tim Emery told KIRO 7 news that there are no specific laws stopping employers from making the vaccine mandatory, and noted that some employers had already enforced a mandate.

Laws related to these types of mandates are fluid, Emery said, recalling that at one point employers were 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,” he added.

However, with nationwide coronavirus infections quadrupling in July, according to the Washington Post, more employers may start to consider requiring the vaccine to keep business running smoothly.

While workers can refuse to take the vaccine for various reasons, including religious beliefs, medical conditions or contractual obligations, it’s unclear how those exceptions would hold up if the pandemic worsens.

In a related development, the Biden administration announced Monday that “long COVID,” a condition marked by persistent Covid-19 symptoms long after the actual virus clears their system, could be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects disabled people from discrimination. Some of those protections include accommodations in the workplace.

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us for a free consultation if you have a claim related to coronavirus, workers’ compensation, L&I, or any other employment law matter. 

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