As time goes on, thousands of public employees – many of them police and firefighters – are demanding and receiving religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine requirements that state and local governments have adopted in an effort to reduce the spread of the disease. virus.
Vaccine mandates have been pushed by public officials seeking to crack down on critics they accuse of facilitating the deadly spread of the virus. But the number of exemptions granted suggests that it can be difficult to apply the mandate to reluctant workers whose religious beliefs are protected by federal and state laws, especially if those workers are backed by a strong union.
San José has approved about four of the five requests for religious exemption from the vaccine requirement, a total of more than 300. Although no major religious leader opposes the vaccination of their worshipers, workers can still legitimately claim that the shots violate their personal religious beliefs.
“It’s hard for us to say that what someone believes is not sincere,” said Jennifer Schembri, director of employee relations and human resources for San Jose. “Under the law, I’m not sure we have a lot of capacity to do it. “
But that doesn’t mean exempt employees get a pass, either. Employers should try to accommodate a worker’s religious beliefs just as they do with medical restrictions and disabilities. These accommodations can be onerous on the employee, such as frequent test assignments, and can be changed if they prove to be inapplicable.
“Just because we approve of something doesn’t mean we can accommodate it,” Schembri said. For workers in San José who are exempt from vaccination for religious or medical reasons, that usually means having to wear face masks at work and be tested twice a week for COVID-19, she said.
Other government agencies that have adopted vaccine requirements have also received a significant number of requests for religious exemptions. In Santa Clara County, 977 of 22,334 employees demanded religious exemptions from the vaccine requirement. County officials were still evaluating them and wouldn’t say how many were approved.
In San Francisco, the first major city to adopt a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for employees, 470 of the city’s 36,000 workers requested medical and religious exemptions – 194 of them in the police department – Friday night said head of human resources policy Mawuli Tugbenyoh. Less than 25 had been approved and accommodations had yet to be found. The numbers fluctuated, as employees in high-risk positions like the police had to be vaccinated by September 30, and 2,376 Friday were either not vaccinated or had not indicated.
In Los Angeles, more than 2,600 city police officers were planning to seek religious exemptions from the city’s vaccine requirement, which Civil Police Commission Chairman William Briggs had called “extremely dubious,” reported KABC.
In the University of California system, 5,700 of its 230,000 employees, or 2.5%, have requested a religious exemption from the vaccine requirement, spokeswoman Heather Harper said. Of those, 97% or about 5,500 were approved, she said.
As of September 30, 376 of San Jose’s 7,067 employees had requested religious or medical exemptions – Schembri said the overwhelming majority were religious – and 80% had been granted. While this is a small slice of the overall workforce – less than 4% for San Jose – a significant portion of those demands came from the police and fire departments, where jobs are. essential to public safety.
San Jose officials on Friday announced a one-week grace period for obtaining the first dose of vaccine, and the police union reached a deal allowing unvaccinated officers to be tested for COVID -19 twice a week instead of getting vaccinated.
Oakland has circulated a draft mandatory employee vaccination policy to its employee unions for review, but it is not final and therefore its provisions are not yet in place. Contra Costa County was still collecting figures on exemption requests.
Religious belief exemptions for employees may seem offbeat in California, one of the half a dozen states which does not allow non-medical exemptions from the current compulsory school vaccinations. But separate laws govern employees, whose religious beliefs are protected under the federal Civil Rights Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. These laws require reasonable accommodations for a worker’s religious beliefs that do not cause hardship to the employer.
Sandra L. Rappaport, labor law specialist and partner at Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco who has responded in recent weeks to numerous calls from public and private employers about vaccination warrants, said they did not disregard beliefs that are not religious or sincere. But will they be comfortable asking for evidence?
“Employers are allowed to request additional information about the nature or principles of their belief or practice, including written materials describing them if they exist,” Rappaport said. “The employer can take into account when the employee recently subscribed to the belief and whether their past practices have deviated from the principles of the belief. “
Some application forms, like the one in San José, are straightforward, ask employees to identify their religious belief, indicate how it conflicts with the vaccination requirement, and provide any other information they deem useful. San Francisco asks for more details, such as when their belief practice began and what specific principle prohibits vaccination. He also asks if this principle is different for other vaccines that the employee may have received.
Government employers would not provide examples of their employees’ religious exemption requests. But organizations that oppose vaccination warrants, such as Children’s Health Defense, chaired by personal injury attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., provide sample letters to employees.
“The Bible encourages Christians to refrain from contaminating their bodies with substances that can be threatening to bodily health,” says the model letter CHD, citing St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians “that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. “
Rappaport said it is difficult to question an employee’s beliefs because “the definition of religion is quite broad.” And it doesn’t matter that religious leaders from Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama encourage vaccination.
“It is not a requirement that the employee be a member of an organized church in order to sincerely have a religious belief,” Rappaport said. “A letter from a member of the clergy is not necessarily required. Given all of this, an employer should normally assume that a person’s belief is sincere.