Employers can also make a 'limited factual inquiry' if there's questions surrounding the sincerity of the religious request. 

Employers that display “undue hardship” will not have to accommodate employees’ religious exemption from vaccine mandates, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced Monday.

To prove “undue hardship,” employers must consider all reasonable accommodations, including telework and reassignment. However, if the company shows that it is unable to accommodate the workers’ religious belief without an “undue hardship” on operations—i.e. impairing workplace safety, diminishing efficiency, coworkers carrying an inordinate workload—then an employer is not required to provide an accommodation. 

“An employer will need to assess undue hardship by considering the particular facts of each situation and will need to demonstrate how much cost or disruption the employee’s proposed accommodation would involve,” the EEOC said. “An employer cannot rely on speculative hardships when faced with an employee’s religious objection but, rather, should rely on objective information.”

The EEOC said that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, absent “undue hardship,” all employers must accommodate employees’ religious objections to the vaccine. An employee must tell their company if they are requesting exemption, but do not need to use any specific verbiage like “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.” The worker simply must notify the employer that there’s a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s vaccination requirement. For best practice, a company should give employees information about whom to contact, and the procedures to make the request, the EEOC said. 

For the most part, an employer should assume the request is legitimate, but if there’s an objective basis for questioning the sincerity, a company would be allowed to make a “limited factual inquiry” to gather more information. If a worker doesn’t cooperate with said inquiry, they’d risk losing any claim that that the employer improperly denied the request. Social, political, economic views, or personal preferences are not protected as reasons for employees to seek exemption to vaccine requirements.

If a company grants religious exemption for one employee, it doesn’t mean it has to do it for all workers. Also, an employer has the right to discontinue a previously granted accommodation if it’s no longer used for religious purposes, or if the accommodation poses an “undue hardship” later on due to changed circumstances. 

“As a best practice, an employer should discuss with the employee any concerns it has about continuing a religious accommodation before revoking it and consider whether there are alternative accommodations that would not impose an undue hardship,” the EEOC said. 

The guidance may be crucial to operators as restaurants have become the scene of increasing vaccine mandates over the past few months. New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans and Los Angeles require customers and employees to show vaccine identification before entering restaurants. New Orleans and New York mandate at least one dose of the vaccine, while San Francisco and Los Angeles require both.

Federally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) COVID-19 plan under President Joe Biden rules that companies, including restaurants, with more than 100 employees will have to mandate vaccines or test employees weekly. If restaurants incur the responsibility of paying for testing, restaurants could pay between $30 to $130 per employee. 

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