Religious Discrimination Suit Against Hospital For Denying COVID Vaccine Exemption Shows Health Industry COVID Compliance Challenges

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), a pediatric healthcare system in Georgia, faces a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that charges CHOA violated federal law by firing a maintenance assistant for requesting a religious exemption to its influenza vaccination policy. The suit illustrates the narrow tightrope health care providers walk negotiating vaccination and other COVID-19 safety protocols without violating religous accommodation or other employment discrimination requirements.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits firing an employee because of his religion and requires that employers accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs unless the employer proves accommodation would impose an undue hardship. EEOC COVID guidance warns employers of the EEOC’s interpretation of the continued applicability of Title VII’s religous accommodation requirements to employers enforcement of COVID and other vaccine mandates. Other related guidance also warns employers to avoid retaliation against employees for expressing religous objections to vaccination policies or engaging in other protected actions in violation of Title VII.

The EEOC’s suit states the maintenance employee, in accordance with CHOA’s procedures, requested a religious exemption to CHOA’s flu vaccination requirements based on sincerely held religious beliefs. CHOA previously granted the employee a religious exemption in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, however, CHOA changed its policy and denied the employee’s request for a religious accommodation and fired him, despite the employee’s extremely limited interaction with the public or staff.

The EEOC asserts it would not have been an undue burden for CHOA to continue accommodating its employee as it had in 2017 and 2018. However it instead changed its stance on flu vaccination exemptions for this maintenance employee in 2019 and failed to consider any meaningful reasonable accommodations for his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Charging the refusal to grant accommodation arges this alleged conduct violates Title VII, the EEOC filed suit (Civil Action No. 1:22-CV-4953 MLB RDC) in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement via its conciliation process. The EEOC lawsuit seeks back pay, front pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages for the employee, as well as injunctive relief to prevent future discrimination.

The suit against CHOA follows through on the EEOC’s commitment to investigate and enforce Title VII against employees failing to grant exemptions to otherwise applicable COVID or other vaccination requirements to employees with sincerely held religous beliefs against vaccination unless the employer proved undue hardship preventing the accommodation. 

The lawsuit warns health industry and other employers with vaccination requirements to provide accommodations for employees with deeply held religous beliefs against the vaccine unless the employer can prove undue hardship sufficient to excuse the accommodation. The prosecution of the suit against a health care organization subject to the tightest vaccination and other COVID safety mandates under Centers for Disease Control, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations demonstrates the high burden the EEOC expects employers refusing accommodation to meet. In light of these EEOC CHOA and other enforcement actions, employers should proceed carefully before refusing accommodation. See e.g., CMS Updates COVID-19 Guidance For Visiting Nursing Homes & LTC Facility Vaccination During Omicron Surge; CMS/CDC Mandating COVID Vaccination For All Nursing Home Staff; Health Provider Fined $273K+ For COVID Safety Violations; Dentists Face OSHA Retaliation Suit For Retaliating Against Workers Asking About COVID Safety. As COVID and other pandemic and epidemic outbreaks continue to threaten health care worker, patients and community safety, organizations must tred carefully and be prepared to defend the adequacy of their actions regardless of whether choosing to allow or deny accommodation from applicable communicable disease protocols.

For Help With Comments, Investigations Or The Other Needs

If your organization would like to learn more about the concerns discussed in this update or seeks assistance auditing, updating, administering or defending its human resources, compensation, benefits, corporate ethics and compliance practices, or other performance related concerns, contact management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

An attorney Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer is recognized for work helping organizations management people, operations and risk as  a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, a “Top Woman Lawyer,” “Top Rated Lawyer,” and “LEGAL LEADER™” in Labor and Employment Law and Health Care Law; a “Best Lawyers” in “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law.”

For 35 years, Ms. Stamer’s work has focused on advising and assisting businesses and business leaders with these and other employment and other staffing, employee benefit, compensation, risk, performance and compliance management and other operational solutions and concerns. Her experience includes helping management both manage performance and manage legal risk and compliance.  While helping businesses define and manage the conduct and performance of their employees, contractors and vendors, she also assists employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation, health and other employee benefit, workplace safety, leave, and other labor and employment laws, advises and defends businesses against labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, fraud and other regulatory compliance and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor, Department of Justice, SEC,  Federal Trade Commission, HUD, HHS, DOD, Departments of Insurance, and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer also speaks, coaches management and publishes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.

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