covid vaccine mandate

Proof, Testing, Religious Exemptions: What to Know About COVID Vaccine Mandates

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With both Illinois and Chicago mandating COVID vaccines for certain groups, what are the requirements and what do you need to know?

Here's a breakdown of what we know so far:

Who is mandated to get vaccinated in Illinois?

Health care workers, teachers and higher education students will be required to receive the coronavirus vaccine in Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Thursday.

In a move he said was aimed at lowering the number of breakthrough cases, hospital admissions and spread of the delta variant, the governor said the following groups will be required to receive the vaccine:

  • Health care workers, including workers at public and private nursing homes
  • Teachers and staff at pre-k-12 schools
  • Personnel and students at higher education institutions

Workers in those groups will need to receive the first dose of a two-dose vaccination series or a single-dose vaccination by Sept. 5. Second doses of the vaccine must be received by 30 days after the first dose, according to the state requirement.

Those who do not receive the vaccine or opt out for medical reasons or a religious exemption must follow a testing schedule laid out by the state. Testing will be required once a week in schools and healthcare facilities, but that requirement could increase in some cases, such as outbreaks.

"Healthcare, school workers, and higher education personnel and students attending in-person classes who do not provide proof of vaccination will be prevented from entering healthcare and educational facilities unless they follow the required testing protocol," the state's latest guidance says.

Earlier this month, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced a mandatory vaccination policy for county workers, saying it's "the pragmatic and responsible thing to do as we work to put the pandemic behind us." County employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 15, according to a news release.

What about Chicago?

The city of Chicago will require COVID vaccinations for all city employees this fall, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced.

“As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, we must take every step necessary and at our disposal to keep everyone in our city safe and healthy,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Getting vaccinated has been proven to be the best way to achieve that and make it possible to recover from this devastating pandemic. And so, we have decided to join other municipalities and government agencies across the nation, including the U.S. military, who are making this decision to protect the people who are keeping our cities and country moving. We have also been in close communication with our partners in the labor movement to create a vaccination policy that is workable, fair and effective,” 

The policy will take effect on Oct. 15 and requires all city employees and volunteers to be fully vaccinated by that date. Employees can apply for medical or religious exemptions, but such requests will be reviewed by the Department of Human Resources on a case-by-case basis, the city said.

“Fully vaccinated” is defined as two weeks past the second dose of a two-dose mRNA vaccine or two weeks past a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Employees will need to submit proof of vaccination through an online COVID-19 Vaccine Portal. 

Chicago Public Schools also has a vaccine policy, requiring all faculty and staff members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 15.

Those who have not already reported to the district that they are fully vaccinated must be tested once a week at a minimum until the October deadline or until proof of vaccination is submitted. Staff with a documented exemption will need to be tested for the remainder of the year.

Can Employers Require COVID Vaccines for Employees?

Yes, with some exceptions.

Experts say U.S. employers can require employees to take safety measures, including vaccination. That doesn’t necessarily mean you would get fired if you refuse, but you might need to sign a waiver or agree to work under specific conditions to limit any risk you might pose to yourself or others.

“Employers generally have wide scope” to make rules for the workplace, said Dorit Reiss, a law professor who specializes in vaccine policies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “It’s their business.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has allowed companies to mandate the flu and other vaccines, and has indicated they can require COVID-19 vaccines.

There are exceptions. For example, people can request exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

Can You Be Fired for Refusing to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

The answer is yes, also with some exceptions.

Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, said that private businesses have pretty extensive rights. “Requiring a vaccine is a health and safety work rule, and employers can do that,” said Reiss. 

According to December guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer can terminate an unvaccinated employee if that person "would pose a direct threat due to a 'significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.'"

For those with a religious exemption, the guidelines are similar.

"If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace," the guidance states.

There are, however, a few notable exceptions to this kind of blanket requirement. If a work force is unionized, the collective bargaining agreement may require negotiating with the union before mandating a vaccine.

Anti-discrimination laws also provide some protections. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, workers who don’t want to be vaccinated for medical reasons are eligible to request an exemption. In this case, an employer would have to provide reasonable accommodation, such as allowing the employee to work remotely. 

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if taking the vaccine is a violation of a “sincerely held” religious belief, they, too, would potentially be able to opt out.

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