Table of Contents
This handout answers 25 questions related to issues surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and employment for people with disabilities.
What Your Employer Can Do
1. Can my employer recommend that all employees get COVID-19 vaccines?
2. Can my employer give a bonus or reward for getting the COVID-19 vaccine?
Probably, but there are important limits. First, these “wellness” plans have to be voluntary, not to punish people. So any bonus or reward can’t be too valuable or it might be seen as forcing participation. Also, if an employee is unable to take the vaccine because of a disability, the “wellness” plan must have another way for the person to earn the bonus or reward.
3. Can my employer force the employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine?
Generally, yes. But if you have a disability that makes taking the vaccine risky, your employer may have to excuse you from getting it.
Avoiding Vaccines Because of a Disability
4. I do have a condition that makes it risky for me to get the vaccine. Do I still have to get one?
In that case, you may have a good excuse for not getting one. But there are things to consider, described below.
5. What do I do to get excused from my employer’s vaccine requirement because of my disability?
Getting excused may be a “reasonable accommodation.” You should ask for that accommodation as soon as you can.
Your request for an exemption or other accommodation does not have to be in writing, and it does not have to use any “magic words,” or be on any special form. But it will help if you put the request in writing, say that you want an exemption as a “reasonable accommodation under the ADA,” and use any form that your employer has. Again, you should request it as soon as possible, and try to meet any deadlines your employer gives you about it.
For more information about reasonable accommodations, see our handout on Employment Discrimination, at Questions 19–32.
6. If I am asking to be excused from getting the vaccine because of my disability, will I need to tell my employer what my disability is, or get a doctor’s letter?
Probably. Sometimes an employer will take your word for it, but most of the time, they will ask for details and documents. And they are allowed to do that.
Many employers will ask for proof of your diagnosis. They may also ask for a doctor’s note saying that your condition makes getting the vaccine risky, and that you should be excused. If you do not give your employer reasonable information that they are asking for, you may lose your right to an accommodation.
7. I have a condition that makes the vaccine risky. Does that mean I will get to go to work even though I did not get one?
Not necessarily. If the employer thinks you will be dangerous to your co-workers or visitors, they can insist on other reasonable restrictions or changes to reduce that risk.
8. Can my employer change my duties, work location, or schedule just because I have a good excuse not to take the vaccine? Or make me wear safety equipment that others don’t have to?
Maybe. It depends on how dangerous you would be to your co-workers or visitors. In some cases, employers have been allowed to make those kinds of workplace changes if a person cannot take the vaccine.
9. My employer is requiring the vaccine. I have a condition that increases the chances of me getting a serious case of COVID-19 if I get infected. Is that a good excuse not to get the vaccine?
Probably not. The question is not about the risk from getting COVID-19, because there is no evidence you can get it from the vaccine. Instead, the question is whether the vaccine itself is risky for you, because of your disability. Many disabilities that make COVID-19 risky (e.g., diabetes, heart disease) do not make the vaccine itself risky.
10. What kinds of conditions make the vaccine risky to get?
This information is expected to change, so you should talk to your doctor to determine the risks of getting the vaccine.
If you have a severe allergic reaction (also known as anaphylaxis) to any ingredient in the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC, you should not get the vaccine. If you have a severe allergic reaction to any vaccine or injectable medication, you should talk to your doctor before getting the COVID-19 vaccine. To learn more, review the CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccines for People with Allergies. Also, people who are currently sick from COVID-19 should not get the vaccine. For more information, review the CDC’s Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccination.
People with weakened immune systems or autoimmune conditions can get the vaccine, but there is limited data, if any, currently available regarding the safety of the vaccine for these groups. People who have had Guillain-Barre syndrome or Bell’s palsy can get the vaccine. For more information, review the CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccines for People with Underlying Medical Conditions.
COVID-19 vaccination is now recommended for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant, or who might become pregnant in the future. There is no evidence that this vaccine is dangerous to a fetus or to someone who is pregnant. Nor is there any evidence that the vaccine causes any fertility problems. To learn more, talk to your doctor, or review the CDC’s COVID-19 Vaccines While Pregnant or Breastfeeding.
11. My doctor says that my disability makes it risky to get the vaccine, but my employer does not agree. Can they ignore my doctor?
It depends. Your doctor’s input is important, and she or he may have more recent or more specific information than is on the CDC website. But in the end, it will come down to whether your doctor’s advice is supported by medical science.
Employer Vaccine Programs
12. My employer is giving us the vaccine, and we have to answer questions beforehand. Is it legal to ask me those questions, and will my answers be private?
Your employer can ask screening questions, but if any of them relate to possible disabilities, they are limited in what they can ask. They should ask for the minimum information they need to properly screen for the vaccine.
Also, if your employer is offering a vaccine on a voluntary basis, the screening questions should also be voluntary.
When you answer those questions, any information about your disability that you give must be kept confidential by your employer. It must be shared only with those who have a need to know, and it must treat that information like medical records.
13. My employer is making us get the vaccine, but we have to get it somewhere else. Is my employer responsible for the questions we have to answer to get the vaccine?
No. If you are getting the vaccine from a third party that does not have a contract with your employer, like a pharmacy or other healthcare provider, the employer is not responsible for the questions they ask.
Other Reasons For Avoiding the Vaccine
14. What if I do not want to get the vaccine because I am pregnant? Is that a good excuse?
It may or may not be, but we cannot answer that question. Because pregnancy is not usually considered a disability, you should contact a lawyer who can advise you about pregnancy discrimination.
15. What if getting the vaccine is against my religious beliefs? Do I still have to get one?
Again, we cannot answer that question. You should speak to a lawyer who can advise you about religious discrimination.
16. I have a mental impairment that makes me extremely fearful of getting any shots or vaccines? Can my employer still make me get one?
Maybe not. Many mental health conditions are disabilities, so you may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation. For more information, you should review the answers above to Questions 3–8.
What Employers Can Ask
17. Can my employer ask us if we have gotten the vaccine?
18. Can my employer ask us why we have not gotten the vaccine?
Maybe. In some cases, if answers would likely include information about a disability you have, your employer is more limited in what they can ask. They should ask for the minimum information they need. And they must keep the information confidential, as described in the answer to Question 12 above.
Your Rights and the Law
19. Because of my disability, my employer said I do not have to get one. But now I am being treated badly at work because of that. Do I have any rights?
Yes. If the mistreatment is bad enough, it may be illegal harassment. For more detailed information on harassment claims, see the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) website for information about harassment.
20. My employer excused others from getting the vaccine, but not me. Is that legal?
Maybe or maybe not. It depends on the reason why you are being treated differently from others. If they are discriminating against you because of a disability, that may be illegal.
21. I asked to be excused from getting the vaccine, and explained my disability that made it risky, but I was immediately fired. Is that legal?
Generally, no. That may be an illegal failure to accommodate your disability. It may also be illegal retaliation or interference. For more information about retaliation and interference, see the EEOC’s Questions and Answers: Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues.
22. If I am required to get a vaccine, can I pick the one I want?
The answer is not yet clear. At the present time, there are two approved vaccines, and both have about the same risks and effectiveness. In that situation, you may not be able to insist on a particular one, and may have to take whichever one is readily available. But other vaccines will likely be produced, and they may have different risks. If that happens, talk to your doctor or look at the CDC website to see if there is a good reason that you need to make a choice.
23. What should I do if I think my employer is violating the rules that apply to required vaccines?
For more information on ways to complain, see our handout on Employment Discrimination, at Questions 39–48.
24. My employer has given me a deadline to get the vaccine, but my doctor says it is too risky. Is there any legal action that will protect me right now?
It is possible. Legal remedies often take a long time. But in some situations, it may be possible to go to court quickly and ask the judge for help. Talk to a lawyer about a preliminary injunction.
25. My problem is the opposite. My employer says nothing about getting the vaccine, and most of my co-workers have not gotten the vaccine. But my boss is still telling me that I have to come in to work. Do I have any rights?
You may. You should review our handout Disability Discrimination at Work During COVID-19.
Mask Policies at Work
Do you have questions about mask policies in the workplace? If you do, check out our Mask Policies at Work During COVID-19 handout.
Created: February 4, 2021
Last Updated: September 21, 2021
Publication Code: EM16
Disclaimer: Disability Rights Texas strives to update its materials on an annual basis, and this handout is based upon the law at the time it was written. The law changes frequently and is subject to various interpretations by different courts. Future changes in the law may make some information in this handout inaccurate.
The handout is not intended to and does not replace an attorney’s advice or assistance based on your particular situation.
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