COVID-19 vaccine: Can businesses force workers to get vaccinated? Labor experts weigh in

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The federal government said the Pfizer vaccine will be shipped as early as this Friday so people can get shots as soon as emergency authorization is granted.

Officials with Operation Warp Speed said they believe that authorization will happen by December 15. When it does become available, can employers force you to get the vaccine in order to keep your job?

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Factory workers, grocery store employees, teachers and health care workers are all people who might benefit from getting a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes available. But what if they don't want to take it? Can they be compelled to as a condition for employment?

"Employers can legally require people to get vaccinated," ABC7 legal analyst Gil Soffer said. "Some employers already require their employees to get vaccinated for the flu, for example."

And while health care organizations and others have long required their employees to get a flu shot, the biggest difference here, is that for the time being, any COVID vaccine will be authorized for emergency use only.

The EEOC, which companies are looking to for guidance and legal cover, has not provided any as of yet.

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The answer is also likely different for employees covered under labor agreements. Others however, are more exposed - especially in Illinois.

"As an employee in an at-will state, an employer can fire you for any reason, no reason, a wrong reason or a bad reason, as long as it doesn't violate some other external law such as race, sex, religion, national origin," labor attorney Stanley Eisenstein said.

But even with legal protections in place, some labor experts believe most employers might shy away from compelling their workers to do something that could poison the work environment.

"Employees are going to feel more vulnerable about giving to the employer the ability to reach right inside their body," said Robert Bruno, a professor in the University of Illinois' Dept. of Labor and Employment Relations. "I could choose not to have my job, but realistically, during bad economic times, those aren't choices people should have to make."

While no major company has come forward yet to say they will require their employees to be vaccinated, many have already said they are looking for ways to encourage and provide access for their employees, once a vaccine does becomes available.
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