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Employers can legally require COVID-19 vaccinations, attorneys say

Two western Washington attorneys say your employer could require you to get a coronavirus vaccine once it’s widely available.

EDMONDS, Wash. — It’s a simple question: Can my employer require me to get a coronavirus vaccine?  

While the news is full of pictures of happy and relieved nurses, doctors and other frontline medical workers getting their first round of the Pfizer vaccine this week, various polls suggest not everybody is on board, even including some people in health care. 

“The question is not totally settled yet, because the vaccine has not been generally available,” said Everett attorney Todd Nichols, who handles employment law cases. “But the consensus in the employment law community is that an employer can require a vaccination.” 

Nichols said employers can require drivers of its vehicles to wear seat belts, and schools require vaccines. 

“For example, it’s legal for an employer to hire non-smokers,” said Nichols.

RELATED: Washington lawmaker proposes legislation to prohibit COVID-19 vaccine 'discrimination'

And let’s not forget the flu vaccine, which is also required by many employers largely to protect other employees so the enterprise doesn’t suffer a massive sick out.

“An employer can require an employee to obtain a vaccination prior to an employee returning to the workplace,” said Aaron Rocke, an employment law attorney in Seattle. “The law does require a little safety valve. If the employee has a specific medical concern or bonafide religious or similar objection, then we have to have a conversation whether that’s an accommodation that can be made or not.”

Rocke also referred so the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is providing guidance on employment law when it comes to the coronavirus. We’ve seen some of those questions asked and answered before: Can your employer ask you to stay at home if you have symptoms of COVID-19? The answer is yes.

That guidance just updated. 

“On Dec. 16, the EEOC came out with some new guidance saying it’s not a medical inquiry to ask an employee to produce say a receipt that they got a vaccination,” said Rocke. “So, without getting into the privacy or the medical history of someone, that’s an easy step for an employer.” 

Rocke said these rules cover employers with 15 or more employees.

For vaccine distribution these are still very early days. Some estimates show we could run well into the summer and even the fall before everybody who wants a vaccine could get one. And that could also play out into everybody who is required to have a vaccine can get one. 

“The legal assumption is that the vaccine is generally available to the public before the employer can require people to get it,” said Nichols. “You can’t require something that’s impossible to get or is unavailable.” 

While some are resistant to the idea now or are taking a wait and see stance to determine what the side effects really are, will most people get on board if the vaccines prove as safe in the population as medical authorities like the FDA expect? The vaccination timeline seems to suggest this may not become a major issue until months down the road.