COVID-19 Vaccines are Here! Part II

COVID-19 Vaccines are Here!   Part II of the series

Should employers make them mandatory for employees?

The 43,000 vaccines the state took in at the Illinois Strategic National Stockpile on December 14, 2020 were distributed to 10 regional hospital centers across the state and directly to DuPage County, and from there to 45 counties and local health departments, and ultimately to 77 hospitals statewide, Pritzker said.  In Illinois, Phase 1 of the vaccination roll out is focused on healthcare workers and first responders, but Phase 2 expands to “workers in industries and occupations important to the functioning of society” and then later phases move on to make vaccinations gradually more available for more general use.

With the availability of vaccinations for the general public quickly approaching, many employers are considering whether they should require employees get the vaccine.   Like seemingly everything related to COVID-19, the answer to this question is more difficult than it seems.

To address some of these questions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has release new guidance on the topic.  We’ve summarized this guidance in 2 articles. This article (Part II) focuses on the EEOC guidance related to Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). Part I focuses on the EEOC guidance related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As we are just summarizing here, be sure to review the full guidance on the EEOC’s website.  Looking for state specific state vaccination information? Look here: Illinois or Wisconsin.

Looking for state specific state information on employers obligations to protect genetic information? Look here: Illinois and Wisconsin

Summary of EEOC guidance released on 12/16/20 (Vaccinations and GINA):

  • Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination?

No. Administering a COVID-19 vaccination to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute. This includes vaccinations that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will be discussed more below.  As noted in Question K.9. however, if administration of the vaccine requires pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, the inquiries seeking genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories, may violate GINA.

Under Title II of GINA, employers may not (1) use genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, (2) acquire genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclose genetic information except in six narrow circumstances.

Certain COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA technology. This raises questions about genetics and, specifically, about whether such vaccines modify a recipient’s genetic makeup and, therefore, whether requiring an employee to get the vaccine as a condition of employment is an unlawful use of genetic information.  The CDC has explained that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “do not interact with our DNA in any way” and “mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.” (See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html for a detailed discussion about how mRNA vaccines work).  Thus, requiring employees to get the vaccine, whether it uses mRNA technology or not, does not violate GINA’s prohibitions on using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information.

  • Does asking an employee the pre-vaccination screening questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine implicate Title II of GINA?

Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about disability and may elicit information about genetic information, such as questions regarding the immune systems of family members.  It is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations.

GINA defines “genetic information” to mean:

  • Information about an individual’s genetic tests;
  • Information about the genetic tests of a family member;
  • Information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (i.e., family medical history);
  • Information about requests for, or receipt of, genetic services or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the an individual or a family member of the individual; and
  • Genetic information about a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member using assisted reproductive technology.

29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(c).

If the pre-vaccination questions do not include any questions about genetic information (including family medical history), then asking them does not implicate GINA.  However, if the pre-vaccination questions do include questions about genetic information, then employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves.

GINA does not prohibit an individual employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information, but it does prohibit an employer or a doctor working for the employer from asking questions about genetic information.  If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof.  As long as this warning is provided, any genetic information the employer receives in response to its request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and therefore not unlawful under GINA.  See 29 CFR 1635.8(b)(1)(i) for model language that can be used for this warning.

Should you have any questions about the implementing vaccination policies or procedures or any other laws that may affect your business, or would like to schedule an initial consultation, please contact Waltz, Palmer & Dawson, LLC at (847) 253-8800 or contact us online.

Waltz, Palmer & Dawson, LLC is a full-service law firm with various areas of service to assist your business, including: Employment Law, Intellectual Property, Commercial Real Estate, and General Business Law services. Individual services include Estate Planning, Wills and Trusts, Probate, Guardianship, Divorce and Family Law.

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