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VERIFY: Yes, your employer can fire you if they require the COVID-19 vaccine and you refuse to get it

Our two sources are the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Tara Walker, a labor and employment attorney at Bernstein Shur.

PORTLAND, Maine — After Maine's two largest hospital systems announced they would require staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine, people started questioning if employers could fire those who refuse to get it.

Hundreds of people started commenting and reacting to the news from MaineHealth and Northern Light Health.

So we set out to Verify: Can your employer fire you for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine? The answer: yes.

Our two sources are the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Tara Walker, a labor and employment attorney, and member of the Coronavirus Legal Response Team at law firm Bernstein Shur.

The EEOC released guidance in late May, saying federal law does not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the building to be vaccinated.

That means employers can require those who come into the building to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and those who refuse can be fired.

"Employers can mandate vaccines which means [people] can be fired if they fail or refuse to get vaccinated," said Walker. 

The EEOC guidance notes some exceptions: those with a disability that prevents them from getting the vaccine, or those with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observations.

For those who qualify, employers must make "reasonable accommodations."

Those could include: 

  • Wearing a mask
  • Working at a social distance from co-workers
  • Working a modified shift
  • Getting periodic tests for COVID-19
  • Being allowed to work remotely

In some workplaces, those accommodations may not be possible, Walker said.

"If you are in the healthcare field and you really need to get face-to-face with patients or be up close and personal with members of the public, you may not be able to be accommodated depending on the facts and circumstances of your particular workplace," said Walker. "Each case needs to be evaluated on its own facts and circumstances. That's what the EEOC refers to as the 'interactive process.' That's the process employers need to have in place before mandating vaccines."

The interactive process is a process for evaluating requests for exemption from a vaccine mandate.

Employers must have the same standard for everyone.

They cannot require some to get the shot while allowing others to skip it, especially if that decision is based on disability, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or genetic information.

The Maine Department of Labor said it is possible for people who get fired for this cause to not receive unemployment benefits, but that each case is evaluated individually.

"It depends. All unemployment claims and circumstances are unique, and so we would need to evaluate each one on a case-by-case basis. We would approach this the same way we would look at any violation of an employer policy. We would analyze whether a discharge for failure to comply with a vaccine requirement is misconduct, or whether a quit due to a vaccine requirement is for good cause. To determine that we would look at the employer’s policy, the nature of the work being performed, the claimant’s personal circumstances, and any other relevant facts. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question," said MDOL spokesperson Jessica Picard.

Watch Tara Walker's full interview below: