With the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out in full swing across South Carolina, many South Carolina employees have asked our South Carolina employment lawyers here at the Horton Law Firm whether or not a company can force them to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of returning to work. And, if the employee refuses, can a South Carolina employee be terminated for refusing to get the vaccine?
Horton Law Firm employment lawyer Jeremy R. Summerlin (hey, that’s me! writing about myself in third person! what a time to be alive!) was recently featured in a WSPA Channel 7 News segment on this very question. The short answer is yes, with some exceptions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has held that vaccinations are a permitted requirement as part of health and safety concerns in the workplace, so generally speaking, a South Carolina employer can require vaccinations for its employees. However, the employer has to also consider an employee’s request for an accommodation due to an ADA-protected disability or due to religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. If the employee’s disability or religious beliefs indicate that an employee cannot take the vaccine, then the employer should engage in the interactive process (a discussion with the employee) to determine whether any accommodations can be made (work-from-home, for example).
These exceptions are not automatically provided. A company has a right to require certain medical documentation or support from the employee’s doctor to confirm that there is an ADA-qualified disability present and what exactly the accommodations request would be. An employee should speak with their doctor to see whether the employee’s medical condition would make taking the vaccine too dangerous. If an employee simply does not want to take the vaccine based on more generalized concerns or fears, that will not be enough to avoid an employer’s vaccine requirement.
So, too, with a religious exemption request. The employee must have a genuine, sincerely held religious belief that taking the vaccine would violate the employee’s religious beliefs. That means the employee cannot simply claim a religious exemption to avoid the vaccine without having a true belief to back it up. Most religious beliefs will not cover this scenario, and if the employer has a good faith basis to question the validity of the employee’s claims of a sincerely held belief, then the employer can ask follow up questions to dig into the exemption request in more detail.
The question of whether a South Carolina employee decides to get a vaccine is ultimately a personal decision that should be made in consultation with your doctor. But unless there are genuine facts that will support an exemption under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Title VII’s religious protections, then most employees will have to either get the vaccine or risk losing their job.
Anecdotally, it seems like more and more companies are opting for the route of encouraging vaccinations or offering incentives to get the COVID 19 vaccine. I’d wager that this option is safer and less complicated for the company, but ultimately that decision will vary on a company by company basis.
However, if you have an ADA disability or religious exemption and have suffered discrimination or harassment on the basis of the COVID 10 vaccine, you should speak to a South Carolina employment lawyer so that you have a better understanding of your legal rights.