Decisions, decisions. Can you require that your employees get a COVID-19 vaccine, and if you do, can you make the employees tell you their vaccination status? This is not an easy answer and may be more complicated given the new law in Tennessee, SB 1823.
Given that COVID-19 vaccines have been available to Americans for more than a year now, employees have had ample time to decide whether they want to get vaccinated, and many do not. Relatedly, as workers return to the office and employers try to transition towards normalcy, employers are grappling with whether a COVID-19 vaccination policy is the right decision for their business. Many employers who have opted for a COVID-19 vaccination policy are learning that implementing such a policy is easier said than done. This has been particularly true in Tennessee where, since last November, the state has prevented employers from taking “adverse action” against employees who refuse to share their vaccination status. While this restriction already significantly affects how Tennessee employers may enforce a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, SB 1823, which was recently signed by Gov. Bill Lee, provides additional protection to employees who do not wish to be vaccinated per an employer’s policy.
Once SB 1823 became effective on March 11, employees in Tennessee gained two ways to affirmatively establish that they do not have to comply with an employer-instituted COVID-19 vaccination policy:
- Tennessee employers must provide medical and religious exemptions to an otherwise mandatory vaccination policy. While the medical exemption must be supported by a signed statement from a licensed healthcare provider, the religious exemption only requires that the employee state that a religious belief prevents them from receiving the vaccine.
- SB 1823, unlike similar accommodation laws, does not provide an employer with any kind of defense if exempting an employee from a vaccination mandate would cause an undue burden.
For over two years now, Tennessee employers have been navigating the everchanging landscapes of both COVID-19 and the laws drafted to respond to it. And although the process has certainly been exhausting at times, businesses have demonstrated resilience by continuing to be proactive and effective in respecting their values, their employees, and Tennessee and other state laws. Bradley’s Labor and Employment Practice Group is honored to have played its role in helping Tennessee employers navigate these challenges and of course, as always, stands ready to help employers navigate SB 1823.