St. Vincent’s Health Center in Erie has agreed to settle charges it failed to provide a religious accommodation for six employees who refused to take influenza vaccines for religious reasons. The health center will give those workers $300,000 in back pay and compensatory damages.
In 2013, St. Vincent’s required its employees to have flu vaccines. Employees could request waivers based on medical or religious grounds. Employees granted a waiver would be required to wear surgical masks when interacting with patients.
From October 2013 to January 2014, the six employees requested waivers based on their religious beliefs. All six were denied. When they complained, they were fired.
They filed complaints with the EEOC, which investigated and found the health center had granted 14 medically based waivers to the rule during the same four-month period. When the parties failed to reach an agreement during the EEOC’s conciliation process, it filed suit. The parties agreed to settle before the matter went to trial.
In addition to the monetary awards, St. Vincent’s agreed to train staff on employees’ rights to religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The center may require flu vaccines as a condition of employment, but must allow waivers for religious beliefs. It must also adopt Title VII’s definition of religion, meaning any sincerely held belief.
Note: In this case, the employer was left trying to argue that allowing employees to use masks was appropriate for medical waivers, but not religious ones. That’s hard to do.
Like disability accommodations, seriously evaluate all religious accommodation requests. Only reject them if you can demonstrate that providing the accommodation would cause an undue hardship.