The end of the pandemic is finally in sight as healthcare workers across the country have been receiving their first and second dose COVID-19 vaccinations. Soon, many states will be moving onto the next phase of vaccine allocations based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
According to the CDC, Phase 2 allocations will include essential workers, which also includes plumbing and heating contractors and their employees. (The U.S. Department of Homeland Security identified plumbers as essential workers back in March of last year.) This prompts the question of whether plumbing contractors should mandate the COVID-19 vaccination for their employees.
I recently came across an article on Reuters about how a firm of London plumbers is looking to modify its employment contracts to include a requirement that workers must have the COVID-19 vaccination. So, is such a thing allowed in the U.S. with our numerous worker protections? The short answer is yes, but with some exceptions.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance in December saying employers may require COVID-19 vaccinations, but that company policies must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This means contractors who want to mandate the vaccine for their employees must be prepared to exempt employees with disabilities and religious exceptions.
In these cases, the employer must offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee, such as working remotely, as long as the accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” for the employer. Basically, the company must prove that an unvaccinated employee would pose a “direct threat” due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”
The EEOC recommends employers use these four factors to determine whether a direct threat exists:
Even though employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, it doesn’t mean they should. There are even arguments against it — such as the administrative burden of tracking compliance with mandatory vaccinations and managing the exemptions requests, along with any legal issues that may arise. Not to mention, surveys across the U.S. show many Americans are still skeptical and hesitant to take either of the vaccinations available from Pfizer and Moderna. Therefore any mandated requirement may face employee backlash.
Plumbing and heating contractors must weigh the pros and cons of mandated vaccinations and do what is best for their companies. And for a service business, customer expectations will also come into play. Will homeowners want unvaccinated employees entering their homes for repair or replacement calls? Will facility managers and owners want technicians entering their buildings without this safeguard in place? It’s a difficult decision to be sure. Make sure to do your research and consult with your legal team to determine the best scenario for your business.
Kosamtu/E+ via Getty Images
Nicole Krawcke is chief editor of Plumbing & Mechanical.