Can your employer make you get the vaccine? A Pittsburgh attorney weighs in

PITTSBURGH — A number of workplaces are beginning to roll out vaccine mandates, and a Pittsburgh attorney tells Channel 11 that in most cases, companies are within their rights to do so.

This week, Channel 11 told you that Allegheny County will be requiring new hires to get their shots, while BNY Mellon is also mandating vaccines for employees returning to the office.

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Attorney Sy Lampl, with the Law Offices of Robert O. Lampl, said he’s recently received a number of calls from individuals wanting to understand their rights.

“Generally speaking, private employers are allowed to enforce vaccination as a requirement for employment to their at-will employees,” he said. “With public sector employees, it gets a little more tricky, it depends on the state.”

While the COVID-19 vaccines have received Emergency Use Authorization as opposed to final FDA approval, recent court rulings have upheld mandates.

Lampl cited a case out of Texas, where a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by hospital staff members who were seeking to challenge a mandate.

“That case is under appeal right now, but that does seem to be the trend the courts are taking across the nation,” Lampl told us.

With that being the case, private employers are likely within their rights to terminate at-will employees who refuse the vaccine. There are, however, some exceptions.

“If someone has a medical exemption or a religious exemption, and there are certain standards they have to meet to qualify for that, you cannot enforce a vaccine in those cases,” he said, noting, however, that an employer can argue the exemption creates an “undue hardship.”

So what happens if you get vaccinated to keep your job, and end up suffering a rare, adverse side effect?

“Unfortunately, it seems to be trending in the direction that you do not have a cause of action against your employer if they mandate vaccines as a term of employment and you have an adverse reaction.”

Lampl said that initially, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was instructing workplaces that require vaccination to report adverse effects as a work-related illness. But then OSHA reversed course, now stating on its site:

”OSHA does not wish to have any appearance of discouraging workers from receiving COVID-19 vaccination, and also does not wish to disincentivize employers’ vaccination efforts. As a result, OSHA will not enforce 29 CFR 1904′s recording requirements to require any employers to record worker side effects from COVID-19 vaccination through May 2022. We will reevaluate the agency’s position at that time to determine the best course of action moving forward.”

Channel 11 spoke with community members on Friday to see whether or not they support vaccine mandates.

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Andrew Toth of Pittsburgh told us he believes it’s a “really good strategy” for public health, while Erica Tice of Mount Washington told us that she strongly opposes mandates and feels relieved that her workplace isn’t requiring vaccination.