Associated Press

Gephardt: Can your boss fire you for refusing to get vaccinated? It depends

By Matt Gephardt, KSL TV | Posted - Mar. 22, 2021 at 7:04 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — As COVID-19 vaccines open to more Utahns, some have written to the KSL Investigators wondering if their boss can fire them if they refuse to take it.

The answer isn't black and white.

KSL Investigates has been reporting on this subject since last December before any COVID-19 vaccines had received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and reported the simple answer is yes, a company can implement a policy that requires employees to get vaccinated and fire those who refuse to follow the policy.

While the gist remains consistent, there have been a few changes to state and federal rules since vaccines hit the market.

As of just last week, here in the state of Utah, most government employees cannot be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine by their boss.

The statute, HB308, spells out some narrow exceptions, including government workers who are administering the vaccine as well as those who work in a medical setting.

As has been the case all along, certain disabled people, as well as people who say that getting vaccinated is against their religion, can't be fired if they refuse a vaccine. On Sunday, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its publication of the rules to include examples specific to COVID-19.

Otherwise, if a company has a policy that says employees must be vaccinated as a condition of employment, the company can fire an employee who refuses, said Lisa Petersen, a shareholder attorney with Cohne Kinghorn.

"If there's a policy that mandates it and there's a basis for it like a direct threat or the safety and health of others, and the employee refuses to do it for, 'I don't want to do it'; 'I don't like needles'; 'I have a political basis for not doing it' — the employer likely would be within their rights to terminate," she said last December.

Reached by phone Monday, Petersen said her advice to both employees and their bosses has not changed: Talk about it and try to work something out that works for both of you.

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"I advise employers to try to work with employees," she said. "Try to talk to them about, what is your stated basis for not wanting to take the vaccine. This is really important for our business for you to take this vaccine. Can we talk about why you're not interested in doing it?"

If convincing or a compromise cannot be reached, termination may be the only appropriate solution which would likely be legal, she said.

Requiring employees to get vaccinated has long been commonplace for those who work in the medical industry — most doctors and nurses must get a flu shot — but such requirements were rare in other industries before COVID-19.

In the past few weeks, there have been a smattering of reports around the country of people who work in hospitality or restaurants being let go after refusing a COVID-19 vaccine, including this one from NBC News.

As an alternative to firing, some companies are choosing to incentivize employees who get vaccinated with things like cash bonuses. For example, Smith's Food & Drug is giving $100 bonuses to fully vaccinated workers.

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Matt Gephardt

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