Legal experts: Florida employers can require employees to get vaccinated

With more people able to get COVID-19 vaccines and businesses taking steps to bring operations back to normal, can an employer require workers to get vaccinated? And what happens if an employee refuses? 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance saying that generally, yes, "employers can mandate a COVID-19 vaccine as long as they comply with all federal EEO laws."

There are a few exemptions and a recent survey found that many employers are in no hurry to put a mandate in place.

Florida is one of those states where employers have the upper hand. As an at-will employment state, unless you're under contract or in a union, employees have few legal rights and can be terminated for just about anything.

Employment Lawyer Cynthia Sass of Sass Law Firm in Tampa said those reasons can include refusing a vaccine if an employer requires it.

LINK: COVID-19 vaccine distribution information in Tampa Bay area counties

"Generally, the answer is yes, and there are exceptions," Sass said. "If an employee can't get the vaccine for health reasons or because they have a disability or there's some religious reason why they can't get the vaccine, then the employer has to engage in what is called the interactive process to see if there's a reasonable alternative to that." 

For example, employers should consider if the employee can work remotely or wear a mask at work.

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"But there are some situations where it may be required, like in healthcare or something like that, that it may be more safety-sensitive than others," Sass said.  

A survey of more than 1,800 employers and representatives, done by law firm Littler Mendelson, found that fewer than 1% of employers have mandated shots for employees, so far; 6% plan to once they have FDA approval beyond the current emergency use authorization and 3% plan to require it for certain employees.

Littler COVID-19 employer survey results

43% of those responding have not decided against mandating the vaccine while 48% would not require them.

More than half of those who responded fear resistance from employees not in a protected category, the impact on morale, and legal liability for adverse reactions.

"There's a lot of moving parts and I don't think there's really a definitive answer to all these issues," Sass said. "It's going to be developing in the law, what's going to happen in the future."

OSHA gives employers the right to require the flu vaccine. It could be the same for COVID-19 once it gains final FDA approval.  

Rather than a mandate, some companies like Target, Darden Restaurants, and Trader Joe's have opted to offer extra incentives like giving workers up to four hours paid time off to get the vaccine.

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