Labor and Employment

Forcing Flu Shots, Employees and Health at Work

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Find out whether your employer can force you to get the flu shot or any other vaccination.

Can your employer force you to get a flu shot? Some employers, particularly in the healthcare field, require employees to get immunized if they will be in contact with people with compromised immune systems. Although these types of policies are still rare in other fields, legal controversy remains over whether and in what situations an employer can require employees to get vaccinated.

What Are Mandatory Vaccination Policies?

Some employers in the healthcare industry require certain employees to be vaccinated against the flu during flu season. For example, employees at the Johns Hopkins medical centers, hospitals, and university must get a flu shot, unless they fit within a medical exception (those who are allergic to the vaccine, for example) or a religious exception.

The employer’s goal is clear: to protect patients against catching viruses from infected workers, and keeping workers well while caring for infected patients. Many health, government, patient, and doctor groups promote mandatory flu shots.

While most employers (particularly those outside of the healthcare industry) don't mandate flu shots, they often encourage employees to get them. The purpose of these policies is to keep employee productivity up by preventing employees from getting sick and infecting their coworkers. Most employers, however, take less drastic steps to combat the flu. For example, employers may ease attendance policies, increase paid sick leave, encourage ill workers to stay home, and allow ill workers to work from home while sick.

Are Mandatory Vaccination Policies Legal?

Most employees in the United State work at will. This means they can be fired for any reason, at any time, as long as the reason for firing is not illegal (such as race or gender discrimination or retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint). Can an employer adopt a mandatory flu vaccine policy and fire employees who don’t get a flu shot? The answer depends on whether your state has a law addressing mandatory vaccinations, whether you have an employment contract addressing the issue, and whether you have a legal right (under laws prohibiting discrimination) to an exemption from the policy.

Many employers have voluntary vaccination policies, by which they encourage vaccinations and may even provide them onsite. As long as employees have the choice to participate or not, these policies don’t raise any legal concerns.

State Laws on Mandatory Vaccinations Mandatory vaccines are controversial, and some states have stepped in to legislate in the area of school and workplace vaccination policies, particularly for healthcare employers. This is a quickly evolving area of law, so you’ll want to find out whether your state has taken a stand. In California, for example, healthcare employers must offer flu vaccines to their employees; Oregon also requires healthcare employers to offer preventative vaccination, but prohibits employers from making them mandatory. Find out your state’s rules at the Center for Disease Control’s State Immunization Laws page.

Employment Contracts

Your employer’s right to require vaccinations may also be addressed in an employment contract. If you have an employment contract with your employer, check to see whether it addresses mandatory vaccination. Union employees should also check their collective bargaining agreement to find out whether it addresses this issue.

Antidiscrimination Laws

In some circumstances, mandatory vaccination policies can run afoul of federal and state antidiscrimination laws. If your employer mandates vaccination, you may have a right to an exemption from the policy based on your medical history or your religious beliefs. (For more information on discrimination laws, see our page on Employment Discrimination.)

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, your employer must provide an accommodation if you have a disability that would make vaccination dangerous. Even if your condition does not qualify as a disability, your employer may allow you to skip the vaccination as long as you can provide a doctor’s note explaining the problem. If you are allergic to eggs, for example, you may qualify for an exemption to an egg-based vaccine that would make you sick.

If your religion prohibits you from being vaccinated or seeking medical treatment, you should qualify for an exemption. Under federal law, most employers are legally required to provide reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs. (You may, however, be required to take other steps to prevent the spread of disease, such as wearing a mask when interacting with patients.)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Are there any applicable state laws regarding mandatory vaccines in the workplace?
  • Can my employer mandate flu shots if the employee handbook doesn't address the issue either way?
  • Can my employer require me to pay for a mandatory flu shot?
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