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Federal Court Confirms Employer’s Ability to Require COVID-19 Vaccinations for Workers

by | Jun 15, 2021 | Employment & Labor Law

A recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas unquestioningly confirmed a private employer’s ability to mandate that its employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of continued employment.  The case is Bridges, et al. v. Houston Methodist Hospital, et al., Civil Action No. H-21-1774.

Plaintiffs, employees at Houston Methodist Hospital, a major health care system in Texas, challenged Houston Methodist’s April 1, 2021 policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by June 7, 2021.  The policy permitted exemptions based upon a documented medical condition (including pregnancy) or sincerely held religious beliefs.

Arguing that the currently-available vaccines (the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine) are “experimental,” Plaintiffs contended they were being forced “to be human ‘guinea pigs’ as a condition for employment.”  Plaintiffs brought four claims.  First, they claimed that their employment was being wrongfully terminated due to their refusal to engage in an illegal act, namely forced acceptance of an experimental vaccine.  Count Two argued that forcing an employee to take part in an experimental vaccine as a condition of employment violated Texas public policy, and was therefore an exception to at-will employment.  In Count Three, Plaintiffs sought a declaratory ruling that Houston Methodist’s mandatory vaccination policy violates federal law.  Additionally, Plaintiffs requested injunctive relief.

On June 12, 2021, the Court dismissed the case in full.  With respect to wrongful termination, the Court stated, “Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is not an illegal act, and it carries no criminal penalties.  [Plaintiff Bridges] is refusing to accept inoculation that, in the hospital’s judgment, will make it safer for their workers and the patients in Methodist’s care.”  The Court further noted that the vaccination requirement is consistent with public policy, pointing to U.S. Supreme Court rulings that involuntary quarantines for contagious diseases and state-imposed mandatory vaccinations do not violate due process, as well as guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Similarly, the Court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that mandatory vaccinations subjected them to “unapproved” medicines and forced them to participate in a human trial.  In closing, the Court clearly affirmed a private employer’s right to make rules governing its workforce:

Although her claims fail as a matter of law, it is also necessary to clarify that Bridges has not been coerced.  Bridges says that she is being forced to be injected with a vaccine or be fired.  This is not coercion.  Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus.  It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer.  Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.

If a worker refuses an assignment, changed office, earlier start time, or other directive, he may be properly fired.  Every employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his remuneration.  That is all part of the bargain.

While this Court decisively rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments, numerous other cases challenging mandatory vaccination polices remain pending throughout the United States, and some states are considering legislative options to restrict mandatory vaccination requirements.  At this time, however, the EEOC’s guidance is clear: “The federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, subject to the reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII and the ADA and other EEO considerations.”

Kristin A. Zech is an employment lawyer with Berenzweig Leonard.  She can be reached at 703-940-3788 or [email protected].