Wednesday, February 1, 2017

EEOC Settles Mandatory Flu Shot Case for $300,000

Late last month the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") announced that it settled yet another religious discrimination case filed against a hospital in Pennsylvania, Saint Vincent Health Center, that had a mandatory flu shot policy that did not approve six (6) employee's request for religious accommodation to not have to receive the vaccine, who were then fired when they did not receive the shot.  The class of 6 individuals will receive $300,000 constituting back pay and compensatory damages.  

Employers may have mandatory flu shot policies, but Title VII requires reasonable accommodation for religion.  Reasonable accommodation means granting religious exemptions to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs against vaccination when such exemptions do not create an undue hardship on the employer's operations.  In this case, employees who received an exemption were required to wear a face mask while having patient contact during flu season in lieu of receiving the vaccination. Employees who refused the vaccine but were not granted an exemption by the Health Center were fired, according to EEOC's lawsuit. From October 2013 to January 2014, EEOC alleged, the six employees identified in its complaint requested religious exemptions from the Health Center's flu vaccination requirement based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and the Health Center denied their requests. When the employees continued to refuse the vaccine based on their religious beliefs, the Health Center fired them. According to EEOC's lawsuit, during this same period, the Health Center granted fourteen (14) vaccination exemption requests based on medical reasons while denying all religion-based exemption requests.

These 'flu vaccine cases' have been popping up a lot lately as many employers have begun requiring flu shots for various reasons.  Because a lot of employers are not handling them properly due to lack of understanding of what Title VII requires, it has led to violations being found and then subsequent large settlements.  These cases have also presented unique issues as in one case, a court ruled that the practice of veganism — not consuming any animal products — might be considered a religion.  It does appear some Courts, and certainly the EEOC, are taking fairly liberal and strict stances when it comes to whether an individual seeking a religious accommodation has a sincerely held religious  belief which requires accommodation as the EEOC's consent decree in the Pennsylvania hospital case states the hospital cannot deny an employee’s exemption request just because it disagrees with an employee’s belief or because it feels the claimed religion is unreasonable, inaccurate, unfounded, illogical, or inconsistent with the hospital’s views.

For more on the settlement, see the EEOC's press release here.

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