Lynette A. Whitfield
Vaccine Mandate for Federal Employees and Possible Exemptions
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
On September 9, 2021, President Biden signed an Executive Order on Requiring Coronavirus Disease 2019 Vaccination for Federal Employees. This executive order requires that all federal employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to limited exceptions required by law.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued an enforcement guidance to assist federal agencies in implementing COVID-19 vaccine requirement for their employees. In addition, the recently created The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has created Model Safety Principles for federal agencies regarding COVID-19 Workplace Safety.
A personal preference not to receive a vaccine is not protected by law. Federal employees only have two possible exemptions to the vaccine mandate. Specifically, (1) a request for reasonable accommodation of an employee’s medical condition and (2) a request for accommodation of a sincerely held religious belief. The first step to proceed with either of these two exemptions, would be for the employee to request an accommodation.
Requesting a Medical Exemption
Many individuals have medical reasons that would prevent them from getting vaccines, such as allergies to vaccine components, or other medical conditions with which receiving a vaccine could pose a danger. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has not listed any specific medical condition that would specifically prevent someone from receiving a COVID-19 vaccination other than a severe allergic reaction.
Federal employees who are disabled due to a medical or mental health condition have the right to request reasonable accommodations of their disabilities. If a federal employee requests a medical exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate as a reasonable accommodation of the employee’s medical condition, the employing agency is required to follow the interactive process normally followed by federal agencies pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Upon notice from an employee that the employee is seeking a legally required exception to the vaccine mandate, the employee’s agency should follow its ordinary process to determine what, if any, reasonable accommodation it must offer. Federal employees seeking this accommodation should be prepared to provide written documentation from their medical care provider to support this request and explain the need for reasonable accommodation.
Agencies are not required to grant a request for accommodation of an employee’s medical condition if it would cause an undue hardship or compromises the safety of the workplace and places other employees at risk. OPM’s enforcement guidance states that if the agency denies the employee’s request, then the employee should receive their first vaccine within two-weeks of the date of the denial of the employee’s accommodation request. If after a denial of the employee’s request, the employee refuses to comply with the requirement to become fully vaccinated, the agency is able to pursue disciplinary action up to and including removal.
The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has developed a medical exemption template for agencies to use to develop their own forms to provide to employees who are seeking an exception based on their medical condition. Federal employees seeking a medical exemption should review this template to get an idea of the information required and also determine whether their employing agency has developed its own form.
Requesting a Religious Exemption
Many individuals refuse medical intervention or treatments inclusive of vaccines as part of their religious beliefs and may be entitled to an exemption based upon their sincerely held religious beliefs. Religious exemptions are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religious beliefs. Pursuant to Title VII, employers have an obligation to accommodate an employee’s "sincerely held religious beliefs and practices," unless doing so would create undue hardship on the employer. A sincerely held religious belief can include an employee's religious-based objection to vaccinations.
When a federal employee requests an exemption based upon their sincerely held religious beliefs, the employing agency can inquire into the religious nature or sincerity of belief. If an employee is requesting accommodation of their sincerely religious beliefs, the employee may be asked to provide an explanation of the sincerely held religious beliefs and, if necessary, appropriate documentation from their religious leader regarding the religious belief that conflicts with the employer's vaccination requirements. Requesting the exemption is no guarantee that the federal employee will be allowed to continue working while not vaccinated. As the EEOC’s Guidance explains, if the agency determines that accommodating the religious belief would pose an undue hardship or would compromise workplace safety or the rights of other employees, then it is not required to approve the exemption.
The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has developed a religious exemption template for agencies to use to develop their own forms to provide to employees who are seeking an exception based on religion. Agencies may ask for additional information not included on this template if it is needed to determine whether the federal employee is entitled to a religious exemption.
Federal employees who are seeking exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate should be aware that if their request for exemption on either ground is denied, and they continue to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, their employing agency may impose discipline up to and including removal from federal service. Although federal employees will have the opportunity to have the denial of their request for exemption reviewed by a court, the employee will most likely ultimately be faced with the decision between receiving the vaccine or finding employment elsewhere.
This blog is not intended to provide legal advice or representation, but rather to provide very general information regarding a variety of subject areas. The viewing of the information contained on this blog does not create or establish an attorney-client relationship. Further, this information should not be relied upon without first consulting with an attorney regarding your specific situation.