Careful, Your Website is Showing! Retailers Should Start Preparing for Website Accessibility Class Actions

By Kate S. Gold, Michael P. Daly, Bradley J. Andreozzi and Alexis Burgess

Retailers have been the predominant targets of a recent wave of demand letters claiming that their websites and mobile applications unlawfully discriminate against disabled customers. These demands come on the heels of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) confirmation that, in 2018, it will propose accessibility standards for private businesses, based on the accessibility standards it has already proposed for public entities. Even with two months left in the year, 2016 has already seen more single-plaintiff and class action lawsuits actually filed against retailers on this issue than ever before. In the face of an increasingly active plaintiffs’ bar, any retailer with a commercial website or mobile application—especially those operating in California, New York, or Pennsylvania, where the majority of these suits have been filed—should take notice and prepare accordingly.

Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in “places of public accommodation”—a term originally construed to mean brick and mortar establishments like stores, restaurants, movie theaters, hospitals, and schools open to the general public. As the Internet has grown increasingly important to everyday life and commerce, however, plaintiffs have insisted that websites count among covered “places of public accommodation” as well.

Courts have varied in their approach to handling this influx of litigation. In the Ninth Circuit (which includes California), websites are not considered places of public accommodation unless there is a sufficient nexus between the online goods and services and a qualifying brick and mortar location. For example, the Northern District of California has held that Target’s website is a place of public accommodation because the same goods are sold online and in its physical stores, Nat’l Fed’n of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F.Supp.2d 946, 954 (N.D.Cal.2006), while Facebook, which does not provide any of its services out of a physical location open to the public, is not. Young v. Facebook, Inc., 790 F.Supp.2d 1110, 1114–16 (N.D.Cal.2011). The Third, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits (which include states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and Florida) have similarly required at least a nexus to a physical location open to the public to qualify an enterprise as a place of public accommodation. Meanwhile, the First, Second, and Seventh Circuits (which include states like New York and Illinois, among others) have concluded that non-physical enterprises, including websites, may be places of public accommodation without this limitation.

The Department of Justice’s Anticipated 2018 Regulations

The DOJ has taken the position—which courts may consider but are not yet required to adopt—that commercial websites are generally subject to Title III, regardless of a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation. Consistent with this position, the DOJ issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2010 announcing plans to issue proposed regulations to Title III setting standards of accessibility for public accommodations’ websites. Those proposed regulations are widely expected to be consistent with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA), which advocacy organizations have described as the minimum standards for how a website or mobile application should be coded and arranged to ensure it is accessible to the disabled, including primarily the visually and hearing impaired. Indeed, subject to potential exceptions for smaller entities or particular types of content, the DOJ indicated this summer that it plans to adopt the WCAG 2.0 AA standards wholescale in the Title II regulations that will soon govern public entities, and which the DOJ has confirmed will form the framework of its proposed regulations for Title III. The WGAG 2.0 AA standards are too numerous and complex to exhaust here, but include, for example:

  • Alternative text for images compatible with screen-reading software
  • The ability to navigate the website using a keyboard instead of only a mouse
  • Logical and consistent use of headings for ease of navigation
  • Closed captioning and sign language interpretation for audio features
  • Alternative audio description for video features
  • Not using color as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, or prompting a response
  • Text that generally has a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1
  • Limitations on flashing content which may cause seizures

Although the DOJ’s proposed Title III regulations have been delayed until 2018, this has not prevented plaintiffs from pursuing litigation in the meantime. To the contrary, plaintiffs’ attorneys appear to be leveraging the current uncertainty of this landscape to seek expedited settlements, including not only injunctive relief but also damages and attorneys’ fees.

What is the Potential Exposure for Non-Compliance?

Businesses sued for website inaccessibility face significant exposure. Plaintiffs who prevail in a Title III suit are entitled to injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees. ADA suits are often also accompanied by claims under applicable state law counterparts, such as California’s Unruh Act and Disabled Persons Act that impose significant statutory damages for every violation ($4,000 per violation or actual damages in California).

Because approximately half of the lawsuits being filed on this issue are class actions, these numbers—to say nothing of defense costs—can add up quickly. The seminal 2006 case of National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp., for example, was the first to certify a class action to enforce Title III and related state laws against an online merchant. In 2008, the court approved a class settlement for $6 million and awarded over $3.7 million in attorneys’ fees.

Recommended Action Steps

It may be tempting to wait for the DOJ’s regulations before working to perfect website compliance. Getting a website up to speed can be time-consuming, however, and may require working with an attorney and a web-design consultant. Online retailers and service providers should get a head start now.

While expensive, many businesses may find that improving their website’s accessibility early will not only mitigate exposure, but will make good business sense, as well. Indeed, experts estimate that nearly 220 million Americans will regularly shop and do other business online in the coming year. Statistically, around 20 million of those shoppers will have at least some visual or hearing impairment. With coding that makes their online storefronts more accessible, retailers may ensure that their goods and services offered online are not out of these customers’ reach.

Accessibility of Retailer Websites Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

By Thomas J. Barton

Title III of the ADA provides that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disabilities in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or any accommodations of any place of public accommodation….” 42 U.S.C. §12812(a). When the ADA was enacted in 1991, Congress contemplated physical access to places of public accommodation, such as hospitals, schools, housing, restaurants, and retail stores. At that time, Congress did not foresee the rise of the internet or the proliferation of sales of goods and services through retail websites, and therefore did not provide any guidance as to whether or the extent to which retail websites were governed by the ADA’s accessibility requirements.

Originally initiated by the National Federation for the Blind and other advocacy groups, a cottage industry has sprung up challenging accessibility to retail websites by the blind and visually impaired. Every major retailer has been or will soon be subject to these claims. The plaintiffs’ law firms that regularly bring these cases use a handful of blind or visual impaired individuals on a repeating basis.

These lawsuits, which have been filed against retailers such as Sears, Footlocker, Target, and Toys R Us, allege that experts working on behalf of their blind and visually impaired clients have investigated the company websites and have identified limitations and obstacles in the ability of a blind or visually impaired individual to navigate the websites effectively with screen readers or other assistive devices. The failures include the failure of the website to provide alternative explanations of “non-text content,” such as illustrations, and alternatives to non-text prompts or navigational features. The plaintiffs allege that websites are in fact places of public accommodation under the ADA and seek attorneys’ fees and broad remedial relief that requires significant changes to the website’s format, program and content that permit access by the blind and visually impaired.

But the “fix” is easier said than done. First, the courts have not definitely ruled that websites are places of public accommodation covered by Title III, and even presuming they are, there are no current regulations defining the level of accessibility. The plaintiffs’ bar has assumed that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) AA 2.0, published by the World Wide Web Consortium, are the appropriate compliance standard under the ADA because the United States Department of Justice has adopted the WCAG standards for federal agencies and federal contractors. Also, the Department of Justice has indicated that it intends to issue proposed rules for the private sector, but this proposed rulemaking, now scheduled for July 2016, has been postponed several times in recent years, and many believe that it will be delayed again.

Second, the WCAG’s are themselves vague, subject to broad interpretation and, in many cases difficult to implement. This problem is further compounded when one attempts to apply these standards under the ADA’s language that speaks to “reasonable access,” “alternative means of compliance,” and “under burden.” The truth is that the vast majority of websites are not 100 percent compliant, and none will be because the websites are constantly changing and adding additional content. For example, retailers are increasingly using third-party content, which is often not accessible to the visually impaired.

To illustrate this point, the websites of the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) and the law firms that bring these cases are themselves far from 100 percent compliant. Software programs that are used to conduct preliminary evaluations of websites typically give the website a score or grade. NFB’s website scored a “C+” at one time but has since improved. No website of which this author knows has scored an “A.” Given that 100 percent compliance is not practical, what level of compliance is sufficient? The courts have yet to address this question because very few cases have been litigated on the merits.

When litigating these lawsuits, retailers should consider the appropriate level of achievable compliance and the timeframe involved. Engaging with knowledgeable internal IT personnel or with external IT consultants is important to do at the outset. The cases are as much or more about the technical aspects of website compliance and implementation as they are about the law.
In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs typically propose broad remedial relief that includes development of compliance policies, training, on-going monitoring, and appointment of outside consultants. Each of these individual components has to be considered carefully.

These lawsuits are often brought as individual actions, presumably to permit a quick settlement and to avoid the challenges posed by Rule 23 class certification standards and court approval. Nonetheless, as individual actions, there is no legal bar to additional lawsuits by other individuals. However, the settlements can be confidential.

These lawsuits are not just about remedial relief; they are also about legal fees. In some cases, plaintiffs’ counsel proposes an attorneys’ fee award that is based on the number of URLs or websites, rather than on the reasonable amount of attorney time that would be involved in bringing the case to settlement, which is the appropriate legal standard. Their theory is that the plaintiffs’ attorneys have to pay for future monitoring of the website(s) to ensure compliance with the settlement terms.

Given the nuances of such claims, retailers are well-advised to use experienced counsel that is familiar with these lawsuits to handle the defense.

Takeaways

  • Seemingly, the courts will likely eventually find that private retail websites are places of public accommodation under the ADA, even though such a result was never considered by Congress when the ADA was enacted.
  • Although the plaintiffs’ bar has “assumed” that the courts will require compliance with the WCAG 2.0 AA, it is far from clear what will constitute compliance in a particular case.
  • Retailers that have not faced this issue should conduct evaluations of their websites to determine their levels of compliance, the costs, and the realistic time frames for any remediations. Retailers should use the appropriate legal and IT expertise.
  • Latent privacy claims may surround notice and acceptance of the websites’ terms and conditions of use.

Although some retailers are currently being assailed, the claims will no doubt expand to the education, finance, professional services, and healthcare industries, all of which should conduct a similar analysis of their websites.

Reducing Discretionary Bonus May Constitute Adverse Employment Action

By William R. Horwitz

According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a District Court erred when it held that reducing an employee’s discretionary bonus cannot constitute an “adverse employment action” – a necessary element of a discrimination claim. The Second Circuit issued its decision last week in Davis v. New York City Dep’t of Educ., 2015 WL 6118183 (2d Cir. Oct. 19, 2015). In Davis, the District Court had relied on Seventh Circuit precedents in reaching its holding, but the Second Circuit clarified that those precedents “are not the law in this circuit.” Although Davis is a disability discrimination case, the Second Circuit signaled that the same principle applies to other types of discrimination cases as well.

The Law

The Americans With Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) prohibits an employer from discriminating “against a qualified individual on the basis of a disability in regard to … employee compensation … and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a).

The Facts

In December 1998, plaintiff Catherine Davis began her employment with defendant New York City Department of Education (the “DOE”). She began as a substitute teacher and later worked as a health teacher. From 2002 to 2009, she worked at a New York City junior high school. Under a collective bargaining agreement between the DOE and Davis’s labor union, the school had the discretion to award bonuses to teachers from money the school received from the DOE for high student achievement.

In October 2008, Davis was injured in a car accident and took an unpaid medical leave of absence for several months. When the school later awarded bonuses to teachers for student achievement, a union representative indicated that Davis’s award would be divided between Davis and the substitute teacher who covered her classes during her leave. Davis received a $1,000 bonus, while other teachers received $3,000 bonuses. Davis filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging disability discrimination. The EEOC issued a Right to Sue Letter and Davis filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

The District Court

In her lawsuit, Davis alleged that the DOE violated the ADA by reducing her bonus because of her disability. The DOE filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. The DOE argued that reducing Davis’s bonus was appropriate in light of her absence and the fact that the substitute teacher deserved a share of the bonus. The District Court granted the motion and dismissed the lawsuit. According to the District Court, reducing the bonus from $3,000 to $1,000 did not constitute an adverse employment action under the ADA, because the DOE had the discretion to decide the amount of the award. Davis appealed.

The Second Circuit

The Second Circuit explained that, in order to establish a claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must establish that: (1) the ADA applies to the employer; (2) the plaintiff has a disability or is perceived to have a disability; (3) the plaintiff was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; (4) the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action; and (5) the employer took the adverse employment action because of the plaintiff’s disability. In order to establish the last element, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of discrimination.

The Second Circuit further explained that Courts consider ADA claims under a burden shifting analysis. Under this approach, if a plaintiff can produce “minimal evidentiary support for the claim of discriminatory motivation,” the burden shifts to the employer “to articulate a non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.” If the employer can articulate this justification, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the employer was motivated, at least in part, by discrimination.

The Second Circuit observed that courts have not developed a “bright-line rule” for identifying whether an employment action is an adverse employment action sufficient to provide a basis for a discrimination claim. Generally speaking, according to the Second Circuit, in order to constitute an adverse employment action, the employer’s conduct toward a plaintiff must be “materially adverse” with regard to the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment. It must be more than an inconvenience or a modification of job duties.

The Second Circuit rejected the District Court’s conclusion that reducing non-discretionary bonuses cannot constitute an adverse employment action. The Second Circuit likewise rejected the Seventh Circuit caselaw upon which the District Court had relied. The Second Circuit explained, “[t]he fact that the employer has discretion whether to grant bonuses or raises does not support the conclusion that an employer may freely allocate them on the basis of racial or religious bias, or disability discrimination.” The Second Circuit observed that, in the context of at-will employment, most terms and conditions of employment are subject to the employer’s discretion. The Court listed the following examples of employment actions falling within the discretion of the employer: “[d]eciding which applicant to hire, which employee-at-will to promote, which one should receive additional responsibilities or which one should be fired.” The Second Circuit explained, “[t]he fact that the employer had the right to allocate a bonus on any ground that does not violate the law does not mean that the employer had the right to allocate it on a ground that did violate the law.”

Notwithstanding the District Court’s error, the Second Circuit concluded that the District Court had properly dismissed the lawsuit because, even though Davis could have established that she experienced an adverse employment action, she could not have established that discrimination was a motivating factor in the DOE’s bonus decision. The Second Circuit emphasized the following undisputed facts: (1) Davis missed work for several months; (2) while Davis was absent, she did not contribute to the success that earned bonuses for the teachers; (3) the school needed a substitute teacher during Davis’s absence; and (4) the substitute teacher contributed significantly to the school earning the bonus. Thus, the Second Circuit concluded that plaintiff could not demonstrate that discrimination was a motivating factor in the DOE’s failure to pay Davis a higher bonus. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit.

Conclusion

In Davis, the Second Circuit joined another Circuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in holding that the reduction of a discretionary bonus may constitute an adverse employment action. Although Davis was a disability discrimination lawsuit, the Second Circuit will clearly apply the same principle in other types of discrimination cases. It is unclear whether the Seventh Circuit precedents with which the Second Circuit disagreed will remain good law. Regardless, to minimize risk, prudent employers in the Seventh Circuit and elsewhere should ensure that they can justify even discretionary decisions with legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

Philadelphia Pregnancy Accommodation Law: Notice Requirement Begins on April 20, 2014

By: DeMaris E. Trapp

On January 20, 2014, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed into effect an amendment to the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance: Protections Against Unlawful Discrimination that expressly includes pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition among those categories protected from unlawful discrimination.

The city law covers employers who do business in Philadelphia through employees or who employ one or more employees.  Before this amendment, employers’ obligations under city, state, and federal antidiscrimination laws only required them to treat employees with pregnancy-related issues no worse than any other disabled employee with respect to accommodations.  Now employers are not only prohibited from denying or interfering with an individual’s employment opportunities on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, but employers also are required to make reasonable accommodations on these bases to an employee who requests it.  The legislation’s non-exhaustive examples of reasonable accommodations include restroom breaks, periodic rest for those who stand for long periods of time, assistance with manual labor, leave for a period of disability arising from childbirth, reassignment to a vacant position, and job restructuring.  Employers have an affirmative defense under the law for failing to accommodate an employee if such accommodations would cause an undue hardship.

Employers should take note that this law increases the burden on them to provide reasonable accommodations, since examples like reassignment and job restructuring have traditionally not been required under similar federal and state laws that mandate accommodations for individuals with disabilities.  Thus, employers should review their policies and other written materials regarding employee accommodations to ensure that they reflect the increased protections afforded by the amendment.  Employers were required to provide written notice to its employees of the protections under this amendment by April 20th or post the notice conspicuously at its place of business in an area accessible to employees.  The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations has provided a model notice to employees, which can be found at: http://www.phila.gov/HumanRelations/PDF/pregnancy_poster.pdf.

Firing Employees Who Don’t Get Flu Shots: What Risks Do Hospitals Face?

By: Mark D. Nelson

As hospitals continue to see an onslaught of flu patients, they also face challenges to flu vaccination policies designed to reduce the spread of flu to patients and fellow employees.  Hospitals are understandably concerned with protecting patients, visitors and employees from contracting the flu and the potentially serious consequences to the health of elderly and infant patients.  However, protecting patients against flu can create legal liability when employees are disciplined, discharged or suffer other adverse action because they do not get a flu shot.

Employment Considerations for Flu Vaccination Policies—The National Labor Relations Act

What limitations exist on a hospital’s ability to create and implement a flu/other vaccination policy?  Under the National Labor Relations Act, a flu vaccination policy is a mandatory subject of bargaining.  This means that unionized hospitals cannot unilaterally implement such a policy without first giving the union notice of the intended policy and bargain over the policy if the union requests to do so.

A hospital does not have to bargain if the union has “clearly and unmistakably” waived its right to bargain over the issue.  A waiver is typically found in the “Management Rights” clause, which was the case in a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB; the Board) decision, Virginia Mason Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 64 (2012), where the Board found a clear and unmistakable waiver in the Management Rights clause.  That clause stated, in relevant part, that the Medical Center has the right to “operate and manage the Hospital, including but not limited to the right to require standards of performance and…to direct the nurses…to determine the materials and equipment to be used; to implement improved operational methods and procedures…to discipline, demote or discharge nurses for just cause…and to promulgate rules, regulations and personnel policies….”

The Union representing the Medical Center’s registered nurses filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Board and a hearing was held before an NLRB Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  The ALJ ruled, and the Board agreed, that the Management Rights clause did not specifically mention wearing facemasks (which the flu policy required in certain areas for non-immunized nurses), but it did “specifically allow the Hospital to unilaterally ‘direct the nurses’ and ‘determine the materials and equipment to be used’ [as well as] implement improved operational methods and procedure.’”  The ALJ noted that the Hospital had several infection control policies that required nurses to wear masks under various circumstances, and found that requiring non-immunized nurses to wear masks was within the Hospital’s authority to “determine the materials and equipment to be used [and] implement improved operational methods and procedures.”

With properly crafted language in a Management Rights clause or elsewhere in a collective bargaining agreement, a unionized hospital has the right to unilaterally implement a new flu vaccination policy or modify an existing policy.

Employment Considerations for Flu Vaccination Policies—Disability and Religious Discrimination

Hospitals, of course, have reached different decisions on how to balance the interests of patients and employees. As such, policies vary in the flexibility given to employees regarding non-vaccination and the resulting consequences:

    • Vaccination encouraged but not mandated
    • Vaccination mandated with exemptions for medical contraindication, religious beliefs (discipline/other adverse consequences for non-exempted employees)
    • Vaccination mandated and masking required for medical contraindication, religious beliefs (discipline/other adverse consequences for failure to be vaccinated or wear mask, as applicable)
    • Vaccination required (discipline/other adverse consequences for non-compliance)

Flu vaccination policies also differ regarding applicability.  Some policies apply only to employees who come into direct contact with patients.  At the other end of the continuum, the policy applies to all employees, independent contractors, students, interns, vendors and others who provide services inside the hospital.

Union and non-union hospitals should consider the potential for discrimination claims based on a flu vaccination policy that requires any group of employees to get a flu shot or face adverse consequences (such as discharge) if they fail to do so for any reason.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would likely find such a policy to be unlawful.  The EEOC has taken the position in its “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act” guidance that

“[a]n employee may be entitled to an exemption from a mandatory vaccination requirement based on an ADA disability that prevents him from taking the influenza vaccine. This would be a reasonable accommodation barring undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). Similarly, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once an employer receives notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents him from taking the influenza vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship as defined by Title VII (“more than de minimis cost” to the operation of the employer’s business, which is a lower standard than under the ADA).”

http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html– 48k – 2009-10-21

A federal district court in Ohio refused to dismiss a complaint by a registered nurse alleging religious discrimination because she was fired for refusing to comply with the hospital’s mandatory flu vaccination policy.  Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, S.D. Ohio, No. 1:11-cv-00917 (12/27/12).   The employee’s refusal was based on her “religious beliefs” in veganism. The court rejected the hospital’s argument that her veganism was merely a “social philosophy or dietary preference.”  According to the court, it was plausible the employee could show that she held her belief in veganism with the same sincerity as traditional religious beliefs.  However, this case is far from over.  The court noted that its ruling on the motion to dismiss “in no way addresses what it anticipates as the hospital’s justification for its termination of the employee — the safety of patients at Children’s Hospital.”

Not all refusals to get a flu shot are based on medical or religious reasons.  A hospital in northern Indiana fired seven employees who refused to get flu shots.  One oncology nurse who was fired said it was “a personal thing.”  The nurse said she gets other vaccinations but it should be her choice whether she gets the flu vaccine.  She said she opposes “the injustice of being forced to put something in [her] body.”  Absent a violation of applicable state law, it is doubtful this employee would have a claim against the hospital for her termination.

Considerations in Creating a Flu Vaccination Policy

Current CDC guidelines do not require hospitals to mandate flu vaccination in any form; the CDC recommends active encouragement of employees to get a flu shot.  However, some hospitals believe it is appropriate to do more to try to protect vulnerable patients from catching the flu in the hospital and then suffering severe health consequences.  These hospitals mandate that at least some groups of employees must be vaccinated.  ”

Terminating or taking other adverse action against an employee who cannot get the vaccine because of a disability (as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or applicable state law) exposes a hospital to meaningful risk of a discrimination lawsuit.  The same is true for employees who raise a “religious objection.”

Hospitals should evaluate such refusals on a case-by-case basis and explore possible reasonable accommodations of the employees’ refusal to get vaccinated, and the policy should so inform employees. Possible reasonable accommodations could be exempting the employee from the policy entirely, transferring the employee to another position temporarily (until the flu threat ends as determined by local health officials) or permitting the employee to wear a mask when in proximity to patients and coworkers.  From my perspective as a former hospital board chairman, this approach presents a balancing of the hospital’s interest in protecting patients from flu exposure while protecting the legal rights of certain employees who decline to get vaccinated.  In the final analysis, many hospitals believe that risk of harm to patients may trump an individual’s right to refuse when flu epidemics are declared.

Editor’s Note: See our coverage on this topic for non-health care employers here.

The Dos and Don’ts of Implementing a Mandatory Flu Shot Vaccine Policy

By: Meredith R. Murphy

As another flu season approaches and the lines are forming for annual flu shots, many employers are questioning the legality of requiring their employees to receive a flu vaccine shot when they recognize business and safety needs for ensuring their work environments and workforce are better protected from the flu virus.  This need is especially acute for non-hospital employers who care for individuals with compromised immune systems, such as rehabilitation centers or schools.  While a different set of considerations come into play when a hospital is assessing how to implement a flu vaccine policy (see our post on this topic by Mark Nelson here), non-hospital employers have business needs and health concerns that may make implementation of a flu vaccine policy desirable or necessary.

So, what should an employer consider before implementing such a policy?

  • DO  evaluate the business need for the policy. Whether it be concern for patients, clients, or customers or, rather, a need to ensure that your workforce is less likely to be on leave due to a flu outbreak, an employer must be prepared to identify its reasonable business interest if the policy is challenged.
  • DO consider what type of policy suits business needs. Some employers are implementing mandatory policies for all employees to receive a flu shot.  Others are only requiring that certain categories of employees receive a flu shot, i.e., those with regular access to patients or individuals with compromised immune systems.  Still others are implementing a policy that “strongly encourages” flu vaccinations.
  • DO review any applicable Collective Bargaining Agreements. Under the National Labor Relations Act, a flu vaccination policy is a mandatory subject of bargaining.  This means that a unionized employer cannot unilaterally implement such a policy without giving the union notice of the policy and bargain over the policy if the union requests.  However, as set forth under recent National Labor Relations Board caselaw, a union may waive a right to bargain over such a policy by way of a Management Rights Clause.  See Virginia Mason Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 64 (2012).   If unionized, employers should evaluate the breadth of their clause to see if the union has waived the right to bargain regarding the employer’s right to direct employees, to determine materials and equipment to be used and/or to implement improved operational methods and procedures.  In the Virginia Mason case, the NLRB specifically recognized this type of waiver language as permitting the Medical Center to require non-immunized nurses to wear facemasks.
  • DON’T refuse to engage in an interactive process with any objecting employees.  Employers should be prepared to work with an employee’s health or religious objections to receiving a flu shot.  The Equal Employment  Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that employees may be exempt from a mandatory vaccination requirement based on an ADA disability or a “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.” See www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html -48k-2009-10-21. Further, the EEOC has issued an informal guidance letter on health care workers’ requests from employer-mandated vaccinations under Title VII, opining that Title VII defines religion very broadly and that an “employee’s belief or practice can be ‘religious’ under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group      that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it.   See http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/foia/letters/2012/religious_accommodation.html.  Courts have recognized that such “sincerely held” beliefs may include lifestyle choices such as veganism. See Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, No. 11-917, 2012 WL 6721098 (S.D. Ohio December 27, 2012).  In such instances where an employee expresses a health or religious-based objection to a mandatory flu vaccine policy, the employer should discuss reasonable accommodations with the employee, e.g., exempting the employee from the policy entirely, transferring the employee to another position temporarily (until the flu threat ends as determined by local health officials) or permitting the employee to wear a facemask when in proximity to patients and coworkers.
  • DON’T  terminate any employee who refuses a flu shot without engaging in the interactive process if they are objecting for health or religious reasons.  Further, any disciplinary measures should be uniformly implemented in the case of employees in violation of the policy.  Employers may also want to consider progressive discipline for first-time offenders, e.g., issuing a warning letter for an initial failure to show proof of a flu shot or failure to wear a facemask.
  • DO ensure that any policy implemented is enforced uniformly. Require proof that employees have received a flu shot.  In the case of objectors, seek a waiver that the employee is unable or objects to vaccination and then engage in the interactive process to agree upon a reasonable accommodation.
  • DO consider making flu shots available to employees on-site to maximize compliance with any flu shot policy.
  • DON’T implement a policy without contacting your state’s Department of Health or any other related agencies.  These agencies can provide guidance on the manner in which vaccine policies should be implemented for various categories of employers or regarding possible accommodations for objecting employees.