Can Your Employer Require You to Get Vaccinated?

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After more than a year of working from home, your company might be talking about bringing you back into the office. And the big question is: can they require you to get vaccinated?

Victoria Holguin is a special education teacher’s aide. She headed back to the classroom this week, but she got vaccinated first.

“If these students that are physical start spitting or all these things start coming out of their mouth, that puts our aides in danger,” said Holguin.

She made the decision to get vaccinated herself, although she was expecting the school to require it. In the end, it didn’t. And Holguin thinks that was a fair decision.

“I don’t believe employers should require that of employees because it’s a personal issue,” she said.

Thomas Lenz, a labor and employment attorney and lecturer of law at USC, says this topic is keeping him very busy fielding questions these days.

“This has been a really hot topic,” he said.

What bosses and employees want to know: can your employer require you to get vaccinated? Lenz says the short answer is yes. He says the state and federal government have pretty much given employers the green light to require Covid vaccinations.

“I think employers want to be perceived as providing a safe workplace, providing a safe place for interaction with customers, and they want to comply in most instances with legal mandates,” Lenz said.

But while private employers have more leeway to demand vaccines, Lenz says it’s a different story for government employees, like Victoria. He says it may be harder to require vaccinations for those employees.

“Anytime you’re dealing with the public sector, you’re dealing with the government, and you’re dealing with the constitution,” Lenz said.

But if your employer can require you to get vaccinated, Lenz said there are a couple of exceptions: religious beliefs and disabilities. If you claim one of these exemptions, Lenz said companies can ask you some questions about it, especially if they suspect you’re not acting in good faith. That said, Lenz said it’s a fine line.

He also said if you don’t believe in vaccinations - that’s not considered an exception. But he expects plenty of litigation around the issue.

“In spite of the federal government saying vaccinations can be required, there’s a lot of resistance,” he said. “Employees are speaking out saying they don’t want to be a part of this, they don’t believe in it, they don’t trust what they consider experiential medicine.”

So can your employer fire you if you refuse to get vaccinated? Lenz said yes, although he urges companies to think it through. Again, he expects a lot of litigation.

“I think the whole Covid pandemic will create legal issues for decades to come,” he said.

And if your company asks you to get vaccinated, Lenz said state law requires them to provide you paid time off to do it. He said the company can ask if you did indeed get vaccinated, but it shouldn’t ask you for proof, as that could be stepping too far into privacy issues.

As for Holguin, she’s glad she got vaccinated, something she says she did for the greater good.

“Honestly, I’m starting to think it’s necessary, just so everyone can feel safe again,” she said.

California COVID-19 Vaccinations

The map tracks the number of doses administered by a recipient's county of residence according to the The California Department of Public Health.

Source: The statewide totals for doses administered reflect Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Otherwise we used data from the California Department of Public Health.
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

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