Is it legal to require vaccines?


Q: I want my employees and customers to stay healthy. Can I require my staff to get the flu shot?

A: In a word: Yes. But there are two big legal exceptions, says attorney Rob Niccolini, co-chairman of the healthcare practice at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Ogletree Deakins. And he warns mandatory flu vaccines might not be a smart idea for operators who don’t serve vulnerable populations.

First, Niccolini notes, the flu vaccine is “highly recommended by a number of state agencies and the [Centers for Disease Control], but nothing says it’s required.”

Operators who are thinking of enacting a mandatory policy should be aware of some exceptions under federal law: They must “reasonably accommodate” employees who refuse vaccines because of religious beliefs or disabilities—which include medical issues like allergies.

“Reasonable accommodations can include being required to wear a mask during flu season, or moving the employee to a different area—like a non-patient area if it’s a hospital,” says Niccolini.

Many hospitals enforce mandatory flu vaccinations for employees because voluntary programs typically garner only about 70% participation, Niccolini says. Policies vary at schools, and senior living centers “are just starting to have that discussion.”

B&I teams should take advantage of voluntary programs, offering the flu shot on-premise and even awarding prizes, he says.

“If you make the program mandatory, you’ve set a hard line: If someone refuses, do you terminate them?” he says. “If you’re a business trying to avoid the loss of productivity when people take sick days, that’s very different than a hospital with patients who could die if they get the flu.” 

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