Benefits Strategy

Can employers require a COVID-19 vaccine? EEOC says yes, and they can offer incentives too

Written by Allie

Can an employer require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine in order to return to work? A federal agency says yes!

Right before the Memorial Day holiday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shared a promising update about how companies can handle employee vaccinations without running afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

The new guidance comes down to this: companies can legally require employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 before returning to work. Businesses can also offer incentives to employees to get vaccinated or to provide documentation of vaccination “as long as the incentives are not coercive,” the EEOC said in a news release Friday.

A coercive incentive is something that would be detrimental to pass up, such as a $500 reward or a free vacation. A $20 gift card or HSA contribution? That’s more like it.

The updated guidance also says that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for employees who don’t get vaccinated because of a disability, religious beliefs, or pregnancy

In many cases, that can be as simple as continuing to allow those employees to work from home until they’re able to be vaccinated or until conditions change.

To help managers with this process, the Job Accommodation Network has put together extensive topics about how to navigate accommodation requests. “While many people might be eager to return to the workplace, some workers with medical conditions might have limits to entering the workplace or performing job duties due to the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 or other related circumstances,” they advise. “returning employees to the workplace in the middle of a pandemic is not a one-size-fits-all accommodation situation. Don’t assume that each worker with a disability or medical condition will benefit from the same accommodations.”

A few other important updates from the release:

  • Federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, so long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation.
  • Federal EEO laws do not prevent or limit employers from offering incentives to employees to voluntarily provide documentation of vaccination obtained from a third party, such as a pharmacy, health care provider, or public clinic.
  • If employers choose to request proof of vaccination from employees, you must keep that information confidential. (If you’re gathering this information through IncentFit, our system automatically keeps that information confidential and HIPAA compliant!)
  • Employers may offer incentives for employees to be vaccinated, as long as the incentives are not coercive. 
  • Employers can share educational information with employees and their family members, to raise awareness about the benefits of vaccination and the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The updated technical assistance released today addresses frequently asked questions concerning vaccinations in the employment context,” says EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows.  “The EEOC will continue to clarify and update our COVID-19 technical assistance to ensure that we are providing the public with clear, easy to understand, and helpful information”

However, the agency did note that these recommendations specifically reflect federal laws—namely the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)—and that local or state regulations may be different. HR teams should check local regulations first, but in general this is a good sign!

What’s next for workplaces

At IncentFit, we’ve been monitoring the COVID-19 workplace guidance for months and are excited about this next step. Everything from jobs and schooling, to basic activities like grocery shopping, were disrupted by COVID-19. While the economy and job markets are showing signs of improvement, getting “back to normal” isn’t fully going to happen until most people and children get their shots. Offices cannot safely and ethically reopen until employees feel comfortable and safe going to work.

So for many reasons, promoting mass vaccination and continued public health safety measures is a critical step in moving past the pandemic! It also falls in line with a healthy workplace wellness strategy. We’ve seen top employers incentivize flu shots and other healthy behaviors for several years, and hope to see that expanded in years to come!

Want to learn more about incentivizing COVID-19 vaccines, or other health-related activities? Check out our blog post, “How to Pay Your Employees to Get Vaccinated for Covid.”