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Some workers don't want a COVID-19 vaccine. Can their bosses make them get it anyway?

Samantha Masunaga, Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Most of the faculty at a southern Minnesota high school can't wait to get the shots that will protect them against COVID-19. But an instructor who teaches business classes said he's not ready to take it, and he fears that his refusal to get vaccinated will prevent him from returning to his classroom.

"My kids are everything to me, my classroom is everything, but I'm not going to take the vaccine," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified by name because he didn't want to antagonize administrators at his school.

He's not an "anti-vaxxer." He's had all the usual childhood vaccinations, and he gets a flu shot each year. But the COVID-19 vaccines feel different to him. He worries they were rushed out too fast and might have long-term side effects that won't emerge for years.

"I'm not saying never, ever, ever," he said. "But I am saying I don't feel like I'm informed enough to make a smart decision."'

He's hardly alone. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 27% of Americans are "vaccine hesitant," saying they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available for free and deemed safe by scientists. Among healthcare workers who are first in line to get vaccinated, that number is even higher: 29%.

Can they be fired if they refuse to get vaccinated? Should they lose their jobs if they won't do their part to achieve herd immunity?

 

Questions like these will be asked with increasing frequency as more doses of COVID-19 vaccine become available in the weeks and months to come. And there are no easy answers.

"It's not cut and dry," said Ubaka Ogbogu, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Alberta in Canada. "Not all vaccines are created equal and not all diseases are created equal. It's a very complex thing."

The legal issues alone are complicated. An employer can establish a mandatory vaccination policy if the need for it is job-related or if remaining unvaccinated would pose a direct threat to other employees, customers or themselves, according to guidance released last month by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

For instance, a dentist could make a case that an unvaccinated hygienist would be a danger to others, or a retailer could say a cashier is at risk because of daily exposure to customers.

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