Q: I work for a large health care organization in a rural area. I do not work in direct patient care, but manage a health-information department in a building off-site.
In 2015 I had a significant reaction to a mandatory influenza vaccine and was ill for two months. My primary care provider, an orthopedic joint specialist, and a rheumatologist all recommended I no longer receive an influenza vaccine. My employer exempted me from getting the vaccine for three years, no questions asked. I just had to wear a mask while working.
Last year, my employer said I had to see their in-house allergy and immunology specialist, who denied me the exemption. I saw another allergy and immunology specialist in a large metropolitan city who said I definitely should not get the influenza vaccine, ever. At that point my choices were to risk getting the influenza vaccine, or resign my job of 30 years. The specialist I saw in the city is also an attorney, and he felt what they were doing is illegal. What is your take on this? I feel the risks outweigh any benefits given the low efficacy rates of the influenza vaccine.
A: Like wearing a hazmat suit to the office, your last sentence is overkill. By bringing up efficacy, you’re inviting debate over whether flu vaccines are generally beneficial, which experts generally agree they are.
So let’s back up and home in on your relevant facts: Multiple medical professionals have recommended you avoid vaccination because of your medical history. Also, you’ve established a precedent with your employer for being able to safely perform your job with reasonable accommodations.
Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, employers must accommodate qualified employees with disabilities that prevent them from getting vaccinated, unless that accommodation creates an undue hardship for the employer, according to Amy Epstein Gluck, an employment attorney at FisherBroyles. There may be room for debate over what constitutes “disabilities” and “undue hardship,” but if letting you work in a mask wasn’t a hardship for your employer in the past few years, why should it be now?
Epstein Gluck recommends asking your specialist for “thorough documentation of the medical need for the exemption” and then presenting that information to your employer to make your case for reasonable accommodations.
The ADA doesn’t prevent an employer from requiring employees to see a medical provider of its choice, but as Epstein Gluck notes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cautions against the employer relying solely on that medical provider’s opinion when it’s contradicted by the employee’s health care provider.
Considering your history and your doctor’s support, your employer should be willing to consider flu-prevention options besides submitting or quitting. If not, you might want to consult one more specialist: an employment attorney.
Pro tip: Even in a pandemic, EEOC guidelines recommend that employers subject to the ADA encourage, not require, employees to get the flu vaccine.