In a significant legal development, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken action against United Healthcare Services, Inc. for allegedly violating federal law by refusing a religious exemption from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate to a full-time telecommuting employee.
The plaintiff, a clinical administration supervisor, had been working remotely since 2018 and had no need to visit the healthcare provider's facilities. However, in October 2021, the company implemented a vaccination policy, requiring all employees to be inoculated.
Despite the policy's purported exemption for full-time telecommuters, the plaintiff received notices mandating the vaccine. She promptly informed her supervisor and human capital partner of her religious objections to vaccination and submitted two formal requests for religious accommodation to be exempt from this requirement. Regrettably, the company denied her requests without any meaningful discussion and issued an ultimatum: receive the COVID-19 vaccine within 30 days or face termination. Tragically, the plaintiff was subsequently terminated for non-compliance.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 unequivocally prohibits religious discrimination and mandates that employers reasonably accommodate employees' religious practices, unless doing so poses an undue burden. Following unsuccessful attempts at pre-litigation resolution through administrative mediation, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against United Healthcare Services, Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. The EEOC is seeking permanent injunctions restraining United from employing religion as grounds for employee discrimination, in addition to pursuing claims for lost earnings, compensatory, and punitive damages, alongside other forms of relief.
Regional Attorney Debra Lawrence of the EEOC's Philadelphia District Office emphasized, "Once an employer is made aware that an employee's sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prohibits them from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer is obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation, unless it would create an undue hardship." Lawrence further underscored that neither healthcare providers nor COVID-19 vaccination mandates are exempt from the anti-religious discrimination provisions enshrined in Title VII.
This case highlights the critical importance of upholding employees' rights to religious freedom and the responsibility of employers to engage in constructive dialogue when religious objections to workplace policies arise. As the legal proceedings unfold, this case could potentially set a precedent for similar disputes across various industries, emphasizing the need for employers to navigate such matters with sensitivity, respect, and in compliance with federal law.