The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) revised its recommendation for religious accommodations and COVID-19 vaccine mandates on March 1, under Title VII.
While other laws protect religious freedom, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, this update only applies to employment rights and obligations under Title VII.
Here’s an overview of the revisions.
Title VII coverage
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. It covers COVID-19 vaccine requirements and mandates, too. Employees, as well as job applicants, may request a religious or reasonable accommodation from an employer requirement that conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances.
In addition, it applies to traditional and untraditional religious beliefs, practices or observances. Even if employers aren’t familiar with the religious belief, practice or observance, they should presume it’s sincere.
If the employer demonstrates undue hardship to its business to implement the accommodation, it doesn’t have to grant it.
Religious accommodation request
If an employee has a religious objection to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, or a specific brand or alternative version of the vaccine, they must request a religious accommodation from their employer, that is allowed to request additional information. According to the EEOC, there are no “magic words” when it comes to requesting a religious accommodation from the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, employers are allowed to question the religious nature or sincerity of a specific belief, if they have an objective basis for their questions. Employers need to ask factual inquires that seek additional supporting information. If the employees refuse their employers’ reasonable requests for verification, the employee “risks losing any subsequent claim that the employer improperly denied an accommodation.”
Update HR documents
The EEOC recommends, as a best practice, that employers give employees and applicants information on whom to contact for a COVID-19 religious accommodation and the proper steps to take. HR may want to update the employee handbook, job applications and such with the proper wording for requesting a religious accommodation from the COVID-19 vaccine.
You can always use the EEOC’s religious accommodation request form that it provides, and customize it from there.
Title VII only protects religious beliefs, practices or observances. It doesn’t cover social, political or economic views or personal preferences. However, according to the EEOC, “overlap between a religious and political view does not place it outside the scope of Title VII’s religious protections, as long as the view is part of a comprehensive religious belief system and is not simply an isolated teaching.”
Basis of decision
Employers must base their decision on an employee’s religious objection on objective information. They can’t base it on speculative or hypothetical hardship. They must look at relevant consideration when it comes to the pandemic, such as does the person work outside, in a solitary or group setting, or have close contact with other workers or the public. Other considerations the EEOC said are relevant are the number of employees seeking a similar accommodation and the cumulative cost or burden on the employer.
All determination must be done on a case-by-case basis and all considerations must be documented.
Reduction in pay, loss of benefits
If a reasonable alternative accommodation exists, a reduction in pay or loss of a benefit isn’t considered a reasonable accommodation. For example, unpaid leave isn’t a reasonable accommodation, if there’s an alternate accommodation that doesn’t impose undue hardship on the business.