Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Federal Court Upholds Employer Mandate for the COVID-19 Vaccine

For the first time, a federal court has ruled on the legality of an employer mandate requiring employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes for the Southern District of Texas upheld Houston Methodist’s vaccine requirement for its existing employees and new hires.

In March 2021, Houston Methodist, a major hospital system located in Houston, Texas, implemented a vaccine requirement for their employees. The hospital system employs over 26,000 people, and of those, 178 were suspended without pay for failing to comply with such requirement. The Plaintiffs in this lawsuit included 117 of Houston Methodist’s employees who challenged the requirement, contending that the vaccines are experimental and dangerous, comparing such a requirement to the Nazi medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust. Among the other claims made by the Plaintiffs here include requiring vaccination would force employees to break the law, the employees were being coerced by the requirement, and that employees would be forced to take unapproved medicine. Moreover, Plaintiffs claim that the policy would unlawfully force them to be human “guinea pigs.”

Judge Hughes rejected each of these claims, stating “[r]eceiving a COVID-19 vaccination is not an illegal act, and it carries no criminal penalties.” Further, “[t]his is not coercion. [Houston] Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safe.” As for the claim stating the requirement would force employees to take unapproved medicine, Judge Hughes stated, “Federal law authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to introduce into interstate commerce medical products intended for use in an emergency.” In his ruling, Judge Hughes stated that the Plaintiffs can freely choose to accept or refuse a vaccine, and if they choose to reject it, they will need to work somewhere else.

Houston Methodist stated that employee vaccinations are essential to keeping both patients and employees safe. Under this policy, Houston Methodist allowed employees to request exemptions based on a documented medical condition or a conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs. Moreover, Houston Methodist also allowed deferrals for other reasons, including pregnancy.

The policy implemented by Houston Methodist aligned with the updated guidance provided by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was issued in May 2021, indicating that employers could require their employees who are entering a workplace to be vaccinated. While it is unclear how many businesses have already adopted mandates similar to those by Houston Methodist, it is expected that we see more legal battles surrounding vaccination mandates. Although the ruling by Judge Hughes was based on Texas law, Illinois Courts should be on the lookout for similar cases that may arise in the future.