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Can healthcare professionals be required to get a flu shot?

In a previous post, we discussed whether an employer has the right to force their employees to get a flu shot. The answer, in short, is that an employer may enforce a flu shot policy, but employees have the right to opt out of getting a flu shot if:

  • Doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs or
  • They have a serious medical condition, which a flu vaccine could negatively impact.

However, questions have arisen about how this regulation affects the healthcare industry. The flu cripples one-third of the nation’s workforce each year. It can often lead to life-threatening conditions, such as pneumonia or congestive heart failure. With the serious public health risks influenza poses, do medical professionals—who interface with thousands of patients during the height of the flu season—have different responsibilities to be vaccinated?

As with other industries, healthcare employers can establish a requirement for their employees to be vaccinated against the flu. However, healthcare employees have the same rights as any other employees to refuse a vaccine for either of the reasons listed above.

Employers in the healthcare industry who create vaccination policies:

  • Should make the policy—and its exemptions—clear,
  • Should develop a clear process for employees to opt out,
  • Should create reasonable accommodations for exempt employees—e.g., require them to wear surgical masks or temporarily reassign them to a job that is not patient-interfacing,
  • Shouldn’t refuse an employee’s religious accommodation based on their own personal beliefs and
  • Shouldn’t require a clergy member to verify the validity of the religious exemption request.

In the healthcare industry, employers’ obligations to public health and to employee rights under Title VII are a fine balancing act. Employees with a valid exemption who are required to get a flu vaccine have the right to take legal action against their employer.

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