Can You Require Proof of COVID-19 Vaccination for Workplace Entry?
You can require proof of vaccination for workplace entry, so long as you approach it properly.
Current COVID-19 public health guidelines not only allow, but may even require employers to screen workers before letting them enter the workplace. Now that the COVID-19 vaccine has become available, you may be considering modifying your protocols to require workers to provide proof of vaccination instead of (or in addition to) undergoing screening.
That raises an important question: are you legally allowed to do this?
In short, yes - provided that you do it in a way that recognizes and respects the worker's privacy, accommodations, and other personal rights.
Here’s what OHS coordinators must know to help their organizations keep their prescreening protocols within legal limits, along with a policy template you can adapt for your own workplace.
What the Law Says About Vaccines in the Workplace
The COVID-19 vaccines currently available have been shown to be safe and effective. They’re also free.
The one thing they’re not, though, is mandatory. Employers, however, are permitted to encourage workers to get vaccinated by offering education, information, and perhaps even incentives.
We also know from previous flu vaccine cases that, in some situations, employers can implement a mandatory vaccination policy which does not force anyone to get vaccinated but nevertheless imposes employment-related consequences on workers who refuse to get the vaccine voluntarily. Those consequences may even include denying the unvaccinated employees entry to the workplace.
(Learn about the 5 Pillars of Workplace Safety During COVID-19)
Requiring workers to provide proof of vaccination is justified only when it can be shown that the policy is essential for health and safety (which is most likely to be the case in healthcare, educational, and other “congregate” settings), fair, flexible and no more intrusive than it has to be.
There are, however, three ways you can get into legal trouble by not letting workers into the workplace without proof of vaccination.
1. Privacy Violations
Whether a person has received a particular vaccination may be deemed personal health information (PHI) that privacy laws ban employers from collecting, using, or disclosing without consent (for simplicity's sake, we will refer to these collectively as "use").
However, consent requirements are subject to exceptions, one of which allows employers to use PHI to carry out legitimate and essential employment functions. Throughout the pandemic, privacy commissions across Canada have indicated that pre-entry medical screening to keep the infected and recently exposed out of the workplace is a legitimate measure. These same principles apply equally to requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
But there’s also an important qualifier: employers are allowed to use only the minimum PHI necessary to accomplish this purpose. For example:
- It is acceptable to ask workers if they’ve been vaccinated or have any COVID-19 symptoms
- It is not acceptable to ask workers if they have any non-COVID-related medical conditions or what medications they use.
The latter inquiries are illegal because they solicit information that isn't required for COVID-19 screening.
2. Disability Discrimination
Human rights laws ban employers from requiring employees to undergo a medical examination or asking questions designed to elicit information about a person’s disability.
Human rights commissions in Canada are likely to greenlight asking about vaccination status the way they have in the U.S. In fact, one already has. On January 12, 2021, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) made it clear that “requiring proof of vaccination to ensure fitness to safely perform work may be permissible if the requirement is made in good faith and is reasonably necessary for reasons related to safety.” But, the guidance continues, employers still must accommodate people who may be unable to be vaccinated due to disability or creed unless it would amount to undue hardship based on cost or health and safety.
3. Duty to Accommodate
Employers must also be mindful of their duty to accommodate employees to the point of undue hardship. Such accommodations may include exemptions for employees:
- Who can’t take the vaccine due to disabilities or medical conditions
- For whom taking the vaccine would violate a sincerely held religious belief, practice, observance, or creed
- To whom the vaccine isn’t yet currently available
Accommodations may also include letting employees who can’t or won’t furnish proof of vaccination work from home or admitting them to the workplace so long as they can be physically self-isolated and agree to wear a mask, practice extra hygiene, and engage in medical self-monitoring at all times.
The question of whether a particular accommodation is reasonable or an undue hardship varies according to the circumstances. The only blanket rule is that there are no blanket rules other than the duty of the employer to perform an individualized assessment of each case (i.e., engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options based on how big a danger allowing that particular unvaccinated individual to enter the workplace would pose).
The 5 Things You Should Do
If you do demand proof of vaccination, there are a few steps you should take to ensure that you don't run into any trouble:
- Clearly explain the reasons for requiring proof of vaccination
- Do not ask about disabilities (it is a red flag for discrimination)
- Avoid asking for any medical information other than proof of vaccination
- Keep vaccination records secure and confidential; disclose them to third parties on a strict need-to-know basis
- If workers belong to a union, account for the terms of their collective agreement