With today’s Federal Drug Administration approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 years of age and older, and with approval of the Moderna vaccine expected soon, we can anticipate a wave of employers imposing vaccine mandates on their employees. For those who are already vaccinated, it’s not an issue. But for those who are not, their jobs could be threatened. If you are in a union, what can your union do about it?
From the early indications, neither the courts nor federal or state agencies are going to protect employees from vaccine mandates. The case law goes back to 1905, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Massachusetts law that mandated that all adults over 21 be vaccinated against smallpox and made it a crime to refuse to comply. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), the Supreme Court upheld a decision of our SJC that said that mandating vaccination did not violate either the U.S. or our state constitution.
In the only constitutional challenge to COVID vaccination requirements to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, a group of students sued Indiana University, which is requiring all students to be vaccinated against COVID unless they have medical or religious exemptions. On August 2, 2021, the 7th Circuit (federal circuit courts are the next level below the U.S. Supreme Court) refused to give the students an injunction against the vaccination requirement, relying on Jacobson. Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University. On August 12, Supreme Court Justice Barrett denied the students’ request for an injunction. As a Supreme Court blog put it:
Barrett, who is responsible for emergency appeals from Indiana, denied the students’ request without comment, without seeking a response from the state, and without referring the request to the full court for a vote – suggesting that she and the other justices did not regard it as a particularly close case.
The most recent guidance of the EEOC (the federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws) said that
Federal EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, so long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other EEO considerations. the only required exceptions to mandatory vaccination policies are for medical and religious reasons.
Our state anti-discrimination agency, MCAD, has not issued a separate guidance, but they generally follow the EEOC in these types of cases.
While these decisions apply generally to the legality of mandating vaccinations, it’s different in a unionized workplace. Generally, decisions like mandating vaccination, and their impacts, are considered to be mandatory subjects of bargaining. That means that the Employer must negotiate with the Union over the implementation and effects of these policies before they are implemented. But having the legal authority to demand bargaining and to engage in bargaining does not necessarily mean that unions will be able to stop employers from implementing vaccine mandates. Employers will likely claim the urgency of these negotiations in an attempt to foreclose unions from dragging them out. There is case law in some jurisdictions supporting this position. If impasse is reached in the negotiations, generally, labor laws allow employers to implement their last best proposal.
In short, current law provides non-union employees little protection against vaccine mandates. For those in unions, there is at least the opportunity to engage your employer in negotiations before a mandate can be implemented. Of course, each situation in a unionized workplace is different, depending on the laws in your jurisdiction and the content of your collective bargaining agreement.
Note: Please recognize that the opinions in this blog entry are based on my best assessment of current legal precedents. These precedents can change, so it is important to keep current. This blog is not a substitute for guidance from your union or legal counsel to address your particular situation.