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Can my boss really fire me if I don’t get vaccinated for COVID-19?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: 2 days ago
  • Published 2 days ago

Q: I’ve worked for my employer for nine months. I’ve weathered the starts and stops of being pulled back into the office after working from home for months and then being furloughed. When we were told we had to take part in sanitation duties, including bathroom clean up, I pitched in without complaint.

But I draw the line, and so do my coworkers, at what happened last week. My employer sent out an email saying we all need to get vaccinated if we want to keep our jobs. I refuse to inject a vaccine into my body that the federal Food and Drug Administration hasn’t yet approved, because once someone injects this vaccine, I can’t take it out. Also, my mom and two of my friends had miserable experiences with their second shot.

Can my employer really fire me if I don’t get vaccinated?


Possibly. Because COVID-19 can transmit easily in the workplace and can prove fatal, employers have a strong business case for requiring employee vaccinations, particularly in organizations that serve vulnerable populations, such as hospitals.

The Houston Methodist Hospital network, which employs 26,000 workers across six hospitals and a medical center, is mandating vaccines for both existing employees and new hires, unless the individual has a legally approved exemption. Employees who won’t comply will be suspended without pay, and later terminated, a policy the hospital feels key to keeping patients safe.

As of May 2021, the FDA has authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use: Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Your employer may require that you and your coworkers get vaccinated as long as the requirement is job-related, consistent with business necessity, and allows for legally protected exemptions, such as employees with disabilities or those who hold anti-vaccination religious beliefs.

Employers that mandate vaccinations need to develop a policy and to plan how to handle employees refusing vaccinations. At a minimum, employers need to ask “why?” when employees say they do not wish to get vaccinated. When the Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn, New York, fired wait staff Bonnie Jacobsen, they learned she resisted the vaccine for fear it could hurt her chances for becoming pregnant. The restaurant is now revising their policies.

Employers choosing to mandate also need to watch for shifting political winds. Lawmakers in some states have already introduced anti-mandate legislation.

Employers may decide to allow employees personal choice, for example with employees that work remotely or when employees don’t want the vaccine. At the same time, some employees and customers may decide they won’t work for or frequent an employer who employs unvaccinated workers. Vaccination appears to be gaining in popularity, with data showing that 50.4% of American adults have had at least one shot.

Finally, your employer needs to decide how to handle the morale cost of instituting a policy you and your coworkers hate. Can they afford to lose all of you? Could they instead encourage you to reconsider vaccination, by providing you the newest information on vaccine safety and helping you understand how vaccinations make for a safer workplace? Could they offer to cover any cost associated with getting vaccinated and to provide you with paid time off if you experience side effects?