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HR, Employers Deal With Emerging COVID-19 Religious, Medical Exemptions  

COVID-19 vaccine opponents are increasingly citing religious beliefs or medical conditions to get exempted from the shot, creating more headaches for human resources teams and employers who have pushed for workers to be fully immunized.

COVID Vaccine.jpegAbout 2,600 employees in the Los Angeles Police Department are seeking an exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine by citing religion, while thousands of Washington state workers have used the same tactic, the Associated Press reports. The response from state and private employers have ranged from informing those that even with a religious exemption it does not guarantee they keep their jobs, to an Arkansas hospital challenging the veracity of its employees’ religious exemption claims.

The privately-run Arkansas hospital, Conway Regional Health System, has heard from about 5% of its employees that they want a religious or medical exemption. In response, the hospital sent its staff a long list of common medicines, such as Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, Preparation H and Tums, letting them know that fetal cell lines were used in developing or testing those medicines. The hospital employees are being asked to sign the form noting that “my sincerely held religious belief is consistent and true and I do not use or will not use” the medications on the list.

“Staff who are sincere... should have no hesitancy with agreeing to the list of medicines listed,” says Matt Troup, Conway Regional Health President and CEO.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered that the more than 60,000 employees making up the state’s workforce be subject to a vaccine mandate. As of Sept. 14, 3,800 state workers had asked for religious exemptions. While the state has said yes to 737 of those exemption requests, that is just the first step and does not guarantee that they will keep their jobs. Each agency will need to see if the exempted employees are able to perform their duties and secure an accommodation while maintaining a safe work environment. As of Sept. 14, agencies have OK’ed seven accommodations.

The state notes this vetting process “may help distinguish between a sincerely held personal belief and a sincerely held religious belief,” says Tara Lee, an Inslee spokeswoman. Without an exemption, employees can lose their job if not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

Six United Airlines employees filed a class action lawsuit Sept. 21 alleging that the company unlawfully rejected religious and medical exemptions from its requirement that workers get the COVID-19 vaccination, Reuters reports. They also allege that this occurred after the airline made it hard for employees to apply for exemptions. United, in a statement, dismissed the lawsuit as having no merit, and added that more than 97% of its U.S.-based workers are vaccinated.

"The employer generally has to go with the idea that the employee's request is based on their sincerely held religious belief,” Keith Wilkes, an employment attorney at Tulsa, Oklahoma-based firm Hall Estill, tells CBS News. “But if the employer has an objective basis for questioning its sincerity, the employer is justified to seek additional information.”

Employees who profess they don't want a vaccine because it’s their personal preference or that they reject the shot because they distrust the government or pharmaceutical industry won’t get too far with their companies. “It can't just be that it's against my religion,” Wilkes says. “It's still a broad standard and it needs to be a sincerely held belief and not just subterfuge because you don't trust the science.”

The Biden Administration on Sept. 9 noted said that the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is coming up with an Emergency Temporary Standard, JDSupra reports. This standard will mandate that companies with 100 or more workers ensure they are fully vaccinated or require unvaccinated employees to prove through a COVID-19 test that they are negative at least once a week before reporting to work. “If issued, these will be the first mandatory OSHA standards specifically targeted at COVID-19 applying to employers outside the healthcare sector,” JDSupra notes.

David Epstein, director of domestic human resources at Doctors Without Borders in New York City, tells Society of Human Resource Management that employers “should always balance empathy for its staff with the safety of its overall workforce” when they come up against potentially challenging scenarios.

“Those who ask for an exemption from the vaccine should be afforded a pathway to apply for an exemption for medical reasons, and the required interactive dialogue should take place as is required” by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Epstein said. “After that dialogue takes place, there are two options: a reasonable accommodation, which could include working remotely, or termination of employment if your company requires the vaccine and working remotely causes an undue hardship under the ADA.”

On Sept. 28, the Pope weighed in when the Vatican City State said it would soon require all its staff to provide proof they are vaccinated or that they had recently tested negative for COVID-19, The Washington Post reports. Those who fail to comply will be seen as “unjustly absent” and not get paid.

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