Updated October 21, 2021.
Employers implementing mandatory COVID-19 vaccination programs are no doubt starting to feel the pressure resulting from an influx of religious and disability accommodation requests. In all the internal commotion (and resulting strain on human resources departments), employers must remember that failing to implement an adequate process for evaluating and responding to accommodation requests can have real legal consequences.
An action just filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts illustrates just this point. See, Together Employees et al. v. Mass General Brigham Inc., case number 1:21-cv-11686. Mass General, the hospital network employer in that case, implemented a mandatory vaccination program, announcing that employees who failed to receive the vaccination would be placed on unpaid leave and, ultimately, could be terminated. The hospital network, as the EEOC recommends, invited employees to apply for medical and/or religious exemptions.
According to the complaint, the lawsuit arises from the hospital’s decision to deny the exemption requests of 229 employees. The plaintiff Together Employees, an unincorporated association of the impacted employees, seeks injunctive relief, claiming that the hospital did not really analyze their requests, and engaged in a wholesale denial of accommodations without any showing of undue hardship by Mass General. The employees allege that the hospital network’s accommodations process was designed to hinder employees from adequately supporting their requests for an accommodation, resulting in denials for almost all who applied. Among other issues with the process, the employees claim that the forms did not give them space to explain the need for the exemption, or allow them to attach supporting documentation.