The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has announced that Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C. will pay $89,000 for failing to accommodate employees “who declined flu vaccinations based on their religious beliefs.” [EEOC press release] Mission had in fact agreed to exempt employees from the flu shot based on religious objections, but required that they declare their intention ahead of time. And that turned out to be not accommodating enough, since not requiring that extent of advance notice would not in the EEOC’s view have posed an undue hardship on the employer — hence the expensive lesson.
At our religious discrimination tag can be found cases of employees who claimed a Title VII religious discrimination right not to serve alcoholic drinks as part of the duties of a flight attendant, not to haul beer as part of a job as a trucker, not to participate in an employer’s hand-scanner system for fear that it was connected to the Biblical “Mark of the Beast,” and to take prayer breaks in groups as large as 11 at an employer that did not think it could spare that many workers off the floor at the same time.
Under federal law enacted in 1972, employers regularly come under legal constraint to grant such accommodations to workers of many different religious sects. Although from much of the current debate one might imagine that liberals were historically skeptical of accommodation requirements, the actual history is more complicated. As I wrote a while back, “Surprisingly or otherwise, the pressure for federal law to become more indulgent toward private employees’ demands for religious accommodation [has] come both from liberal lawmakers like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and from conservatives like Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal.”
Under the elastic “undue hardship” standard, employers may face much uncertainty as to how much disruption of their business they must put up with in the name of accommodation. The flu-shot example suggests that risks to co-workers, customers, and the general public might sometimes enter the calculus as well — an expensive guessing game at best.
P.S. I’ve got a post at Cato making a related point: is it really libertarians who should catch flak for being too indulgent toward persons who want to be excused from vaccination?