As states and localities lift COVID-19 restrictions, the business community continues to grapple with the interplay between the COVID-19 vaccine and workplace operations. To address this, some U.S. employers have elected to adopt mandatory vaccination policies. These policies, in essence, require that, subject to exceptions for sincerely-held religious beliefs and disabilities, all employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of continued employment.
Not entirely surprisingly, there have been a smattering of legal challenges to mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies across the country. And on June 12, 2021, a federal court in Texas became the first to rule on the permissibility of such policies. In a landmark ruling, the court concluded that mandatory workplace vaccination policies are lawful under Texas and federal law and may be enforced as a condition of continued employment. The court’s specific findings are discussed below.
Ruling on mandatory vaccination policies
In Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hospital, 117 Houston Methodist employees sued to challenge Houston Methodist’s mandatory vaccination policy. The employees asserted claims for (1) wrongful termination under Texas law and (2) violations of various federal laws due to the COVID-19 vaccines’ emergency use authorization (EUA) status.
Texas wrongful termination claim
To start, the court held that firing an employee who is unwilling to comply with an employer’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy does not constitute wrongful termination under Texas law, because Texas law only protects employees who are fired for refusing to commit an illegal act at the request of their employer. The court reasoned that receiving the vaccine is not an illegal act given the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings upholding involuntary quarantines and mandatory vaccines. The court also noted that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s May 2021 guidance advised that employers can require employees to be vaccinated (as long as the employer extends reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs that prevent them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine).
Public policy claims
Next, the court turned to the plaintiffs’ argument that mandating a vaccine that only has EUA status violates federal law. In support of their arguments, the plaintiffs relied upon an FDA regulation providing that, with respect to a vaccine that is subject to EUA status, individuals must be informed “of the option to accept or refuse administration of the product, of the consequences, if any, of refusing administration of the product, and of the alternatives to the product that are available and of their benefits and risks.”
The court rejected this argument, however, explaining that federal law requires only the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services – not private employers – to ensure the “potential benefits and risks of use” and “the option to accept or refuse administration of the product.” Indeed, the court explained, federal law in this regard does not impose any such requirement on, or even apply to, private employers that institute a mandatory vaccine policy.
The court also forcefully rejected the plaintiffs’ other arguments, including that they were being forced to serve as participants in a human trial for the COVID-19 vaccines. In closing, the court held that the plaintiffs were not being coerced to get the vaccine, but were being given a basic choice: get the vaccine so the hospital could safely continue its business of saving lives, or seek employment elsewhere.
While there may be future legal challenges to mandatory workplace vaccination policies, this decision provides strong support for their use and permissibility. Even with this ruling, however, employers that adopt such policies should be mindful of their obligations to engage in an interactive process with, and potentially provide reasonable accommodations to, employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs that prevent them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Employers should also be mindful of the scope of the applicable state laws on wrongful termination, as Texas’s law in this regard is narrower in scope than most states.