The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed suit against a hospital in North Carolina alleging that the hospital discriminated against three employees when it terminated the employees for refusing to have the flu shot.
Each of the employees requested that they be excused from having the flu shot due to their religious beliefs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs as long as doing so does not pose an undue hardship on the employer. The hospital did have a process by which employees could request an exemption from the mandatory flu shot for sincerely held religious beliefs. However, the hospital denied the requests made by the three former employees because they were made late: after the September 1 deadline set by the hospital for requesting an exemption. All three employees subsequently refused the vaccination, and since they were not subject to the exemption, they were terminated.
The EEOC took issue with the hospital setting what an EEOC representative called “[a]n arbitrary deadline.” The representative stated that an employer is “not protected from its obligation to provide religious accommodation” by setting such a deadline.
The hospital explained through its spokesperson that its exemption deadline corresponds to flu season, an arguably non-arbitrary deadline. The hospital’s spokesperson made clear that the exemption deadline is well-publicized and employees have months of advance notice to file a religious exemption; however these employees failed to do so.
While the ultimate outcome of this lawsuit is yet to be seen, employers who want to avoid litigation should not deny employee requests for religious accommodation based on an automatic mechanism. When a request for religious (or disability) accommodation is made, an employer has an obligation to engage in the interactive process and individually consider whether the request can be implemented without undue burden. Automatically denying all requests that meet certain criteria – even if the requests that meet that certain criteria are unreasonable – may generate liability.
The case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Asheville Division (EEOC v. Mission Hospital, Inc., Civil Action No. 1:16-CV-00118). The EEOC is seeking injunctions and damages including potential reinstatement for the employees, back pay, punitive damages, and other compensation.
The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.