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Is it legal for employers to require the COVID-19 vaccine?

The question of if an employer can require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine comes after two hospitals announced their workers must get the vaccine.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An employer can require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Nashville lawyer.

The question of if an employer can require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine comes after two hospitals announced their workers must get the vaccine.

Spanish Version: ¿Es legal que los empleadores exijan la vacuna contra COVID-19?

The leadership team at Vanderbilt University Medical Center will be required to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by August 15 and the second dose by September 15. VUMC officials said everyone else would be required to get the vaccine later. But what if you can't get the vaccine or choose not to?

"Generally speaking, at will, they can fire you for whatever reason they want," attorney Jim Todd said. "However, there are protections for employees."

Todd said it comes down to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling, which states employers can require employees receive a vaccine. If employees refuse to get the vaccine, they should look to the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act.

"So, if you are an employee, and you have a medical reason why you can't get the vaccine, you could get some safe harbor there," Todd said. "If you are an employee and you have a religious reason why you shouldn't get the vaccine, you could have safe harbor in the Civil Rights Act."

Todd said this would require legal action. Right now, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center's 28,000 employees, they report 72% are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. However, VUMC said 28% still must get the shot.

"My advice for people trying not to get the vaccine would be you have to have one of those exceptions," Todd said. "You would want to go to your employer and say, 'because of my religion, I don't want to get the vaccine, and can we work around it?'"

Todd suggested that unvaccinated people work with their employer and look into different options, such as wearing masks in the workplace or social distancing.

Ascension St. Thomas officials said "for the safety of communities," they will require COVID-19 vaccination for associates and posted the following statement on its website:

"As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and new variants of the virus emerge, Ascension continues to focus on ensuring our associates are protected – for the safety of patients and visitors, our associates, our families and loved ones, and the community.

Like many health systems across the country, including in many of our markets, we are moving to require our associates to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Ascension conducted a thorough moral and ethical analysis as part of the decision-making process. This decision is rooted in our Mission commitment to leading with quality and safety. As a healthcare provider and as a Catholic ministry, ensuring we have a culture of safety for our associates, patients and communities is foundational to our work.

Tens of thousands of Ascension associates have already been vaccinated with the available vaccines, as have millions of people across the country and the world. But we must do more to overcome this pandemic as we provide safe environments for those we serve.

Ascension will require that all associates be vaccinated against COVID-19, whether or not they provide direct patient care, and whether they work in our sites of care or remotely. This includes associates employed by subsidiaries and partners; physicians and advanced practice providers, whether employed or independent; and volunteers and vendors entering Ascension facilities.

Our timeline for completing the vaccine series and meeting this requirement will be Nov. 12, 2021. This timing is aligned with Ascension’s annual influenza vaccination requirement and we will follow a similar implementation process. In those instances when someone may not be able to get vaccinated due to a medical condition or strongly held religious belief, Ascension will provide a process for requesting an exemption similar to the process we use for the annual influenza vaccine. In addition, this requirement will be implemented in accordance with collective bargaining agreements reached between Ascension business entities and unions representing our associates.

Together, we will put this pandemic behind us so that we can continue to focus on meeting the needs of those who come to us for care."

Our NBC affiliate, WSMV, reached out to Tri-Star Health. They said they do not have a statement at this time.