‘This Wasn’t in the Job Description’ HR Departments Are Navigating Confusing COVID-19 Religious Exemption Requests

As businesses across the country start imposing strict COVID-19 vaccine and testing requirements, some employees are claiming religious exemptions to avoid getting vaccinated—putting human resources departments on the frontlines of a fraught political issue that has already proven fertile ground for lawsuits.

This is the difficult job for HR leaders: determine whether an employee applies to be exempt based on Religious beliefs that are authentic or whether it’s a cover for their political views. “There are people who are going to have a sincerely held religious belief, but there’s a lot of folks out there who just object to the vaccine, and this will be their avenue to not get it,” says Ed Enoch, an attorney in Augusta, Ga., who has been fielding calls from clients at small and mid-size local businesses about everything from handling religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.
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Every religious exemption request from COVID-19 must be taken into consideration. The requester can be part of a minority sect or small religious community, but you can’t just make a religion up. More importantly, what employers assess is not so much whether perceived leaders of an organized religion endorse vaccines but whether an individual’s religious belief is authentic and informs other aspects of their life beyond getting out of a COVID-19 vaccination.

“You can’t just say in a blanket manner that the Pope says it’s okay to get vaccines so we’re not giving religious exemptions to Catholics,” Enoch says. “It doesn’t have to be part of the doctrine of the faith that you attend, so it’s a really squishy standard; it’s really hard to put a finger on that.”

Federal workers are subject to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate and 92% have been administered at least one dose. The White House stated this on Nov. 24, 2012. There are currently There is no such ruleIn effect for private employers in the U.S., despite the Biden Administration’s repeated attempts to establish one. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA), Nov. 4, issued a rule that requires businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure they are fully vaccinated and test negative for COVID-19 every week. It was halted. Biden Administration asked for a Federal Court to stop the stay and lifted it..In the meantime:The White HouseBusinesses are urged to adopt the OSHA rules. While OSHA’s fate will be decided in court, numerous businesses already have or plan to impose strict testing and vaccine requirements.

Numerous large corporations and governments across the U.S. have successfully inoculated their staff with vaccine mandates. For example, New York City Schools’ vaccine mandate resulted in 96% of teachers getting a shot, the city’s mayor said in October. United Airlines announced that it was the first U.S. carrier to mandate vaccinations in September. The new mandates have also sparked lawsuits. The Monday A federal judge stopped the Biden Administration’s imposition of a mandate on vaccines for 10 state health workers. The same circuit court decided that fifteen New York City school administrators and teachers must reconsider their COVID-19 religious exemption requests due to a possible violation of their First Amendment rights.

Enoch, for his part, has been encouraging many of his clients—including businesses that either have no HR department or rely on one or two people—to avoid imposing a vaccine mandate. That’s not because he thinks employees shouldn’t be vaccinated. He believes that incentives such as bonuses are more effective in getting the majority of employees vaccinated. He also worries that employers don’t “have the time, resources or knowledge to properly vet (religious exemption) claims” and will likely end up saying: “Well, I’ll just grant it to anyone that asked for it.”

“Once you do that, then you really don’t have a mandate. All you’ve done is created a bunch of paperwork for yourself that you could have avoided by not having the mandate,” Enoch says.

Social media is a place where thousands share tips and tricks on how to secure religious exemptions. Nico Rocco is who was the admin of a Facebook group called “Writing Religious Exemptions for Vaccine Mandates Private Public Employers,” which has 5,300 members and is dedicated to navigating religious exemptions in the workplace, runs a website called Essential Liberties that offers workshops on “How to Answer the Hardest Questions on Religious Exemption Forms” for $25. The questions include describing the conflict between one’s religious belief and a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, as well as probing whether an employee also avoids using medication such as Tylenol and Pepto-Bismol, which were researched and developed in a similar manner to the COVID-19 vaccines (which relied partly on fetal cell lines). He offers to provide “real examples … to use from letters that have gotten accepted” and a free comprehensive guide to answering questions from employers. Rocco, who collects donationsTIME received no response to its request for comment. After TIME sent a Facebook message to the group’s admins requesting an interview, the group was set to private.

Shared advice about how to respond to questions from employers regarding religious exemptions Some experts believe that this is a method to circumvent the religious exemptions program. Relying on templates instead of one’s own articulation of their specific beliefs undercuts the question of sincerity, which employers are trying to gauge. “It’s legitimate for an employer to say, ‘Well, are these your words?’” says Katherine Franke, a law professor at Columbia University and faculty director of the Law, Rights and Religion Project. “If it looks like the person is just parroting something that they copied off the internet, the employer can say no; we won’t give you an exemption.”

But in reality, it’s unclear how much time labor companies’ HR departments will be able to dedicate to scrutinizing these claims. “Many small businesses”—a majority of the businesses in the U.S.—”have an HR department of one,” says Emily M. Dickens, chief of staff Head of Government Affairs Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). It can take time to review each exemption request. “There will be employers who just don’t want to get in the business of evaluating religious exemptions, and so they will just do a box check,” Franke says. Employees have long been able to request religious exemptions to policies such as dress codes or being required to work on certain days, but these can be approved more easily because they don’t affect other employees. “[If companies] have outbreaks of COVID in their workforce because they’ve been overly generous in granting exemptions,” says Franke, employers could face litigation and complaints from other employees who get sick because they were exposed at work.

Experts say that the urgent need to test religious exemptions for the new Omicron variant is greater than ever. “This is serious business. This is not an abstract exercise. People are going to die,” Franke says. “If all the rest of us have to bear the weight, the public health risk of overly broad religious exemptions—that’s a public health catastrophe.”

The Nov. 4, survey by SHRM discovered that 64% employers were concerned about handling requests for medical or religious exemptions in relation to potential vaccine mandates. With budget cuts and an acute labor shortage, many HR professionals find themselves already overloaded. Now they’re faced with questioning the sincerity of employee’s religious beliefs, and potentially getting sued no matter how they decide. “We have companies that weren’t prepared for this,” Dickens says. “This wasn’t in the job description.”


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