Can an employer require COVID-19 vaccinations? Yes, with exceptions

As North Carolina and the country grapples with an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations stemming from the Delta variant, businesses and universities are working to try and reopen safely. In some cases, that's led to decisions to require vaccinations.

Duke University, a private school, is requiring vaccinations for students, staff, and faculty for the upcoming semester. Earlier this week, a federal judge upheld Indiana University's right to mandate vaccinations for students, staff, and faculty; Indiana University is a public school.

Vaccine requirements have brought renewed attention on both HIPAA and the Americans with Disabilities Act. HIPAA, a federal law enacted in 1996, protects an individual's medical records, ranging from procedures and test results to conversations with doctors. It prevents healthcare providers, such as doctors and nurses to health insurance companies, from sharing that information without a patient's consent. However, HIPAA does not apply to employers or most schools and school districts.

"Generally speaking, (businesses and universities are) not a covered entity under HIPAA so requesting vaccination status, HIPAA would not apply to prevent an employer or university from asking an employer or student for their vaccination information, or confirmation about whether or not they've been vaccinated," said Steven Corriveau, an attorney with Martin & Jones in Raleigh.

Corriveau explains while an individual would not be legally required to reveal their vaccination status to an employer, if they choose not to, an employer can react in the same way as if the employee was unvaccinated.

"Now where we can get into some more questionable conduct especially from an ADA perspective, is if there are questions that are probing into why an employee has not gotten vaccinated," said Corriveau.

An employee can voluntarily provide proof of vaccination, though a healthcare provider cannot share that information with an employer unless authorized to do so.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes federal laws "do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19."

"An employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees who have either a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs that may impact their decision on whether or not to get vaccinated," said Corriveau.

However, this reasonable accommodation may not apply if it would cause undue hardship on the business.

According to the North Carolina Department of Labor, there is no state law prohibiting mandatory vaccinations.
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