Gov. Jay Inslee's sweeping COVID-19 vaccine mandate impacts more than 800,000 workers in Washington state, though it remains unclear how strictly the requirement will be enforced when it comes to exemptions.
When announcing his proclamation last month, Inslee said individuals can seek exemptions for religious or medical reasons, but political or philosophical objections won't be honored.
But as the Oct. 18 deadline looms for those subject to the mandate to get fully vaccinated, seek exemption or face termination, officials have so far demurred on specifics for how requests will be vetted. And there is no central repository tracking workers' vaccination status or the number of requested exemptions statewide.
Data will become available in coming weeks, according to Ralph Thomas, a spokesperson for the state Office of Financial Management. Thomas said state agencies will report such information every two weeks, including how many requests are granted.
While those seeking medical or disability-related exemptions will need documentation from a licensed physician to back their claims, religious exemption requests are more vague and nuanced, and could prove to be another legal battlefield in the pandemic.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employees with a "sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance" preventing them from getting COVID-19 shots are entitled to reasonable accommodation unless it would pose undue hardship for their employers.
How exactly to define a religious belief, an accommodation and an undue hardship in the context of the vaccine mandate are largely left to the discretion of individual employers.
"If they can't be accommodated without disrupting the essential duties of their job, they may still face release from employment," said Mike Faulk, spokesperson for Inslee's office.
Though the top leaders at most major organized religions support and do not categorically ban vaccinations, legal experts say religion is so broadly defined that individuals may still claim religious exemptions.
In Washington, Inslee's proclamation adds that employers cannot grant exemptions if they know a request is based on false information or personal preference, or without conducting an "individualized assessment" of each individual's need and justification.
The law on religious exemptions
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidelines on coronavirus vaccine mandates says employers should presume an employee's request for religious accommodation is sincere and consider all options before denying an accommodation request.
The accommodations can include job reassignment, changes to a job description or schedule, and allowing remote work, as well as requiring masks, social distancing or regular testing.
However, employers — including school districts, private companies and contractors — have discretion to determine whether an accommodation is a severe financial burden or too disruptive.
Guidance allows for employers to consider the proportion of vaccinated employees in the workplace and the requester's contact with non-employees as a part of their calculation. The state schools chief's office said school districts can also consider the environment the employee works in, lack of staffing, safety concerns and the impact on the school district as a whole.
University of Oregon School of Law professor Liz Tippett said employers are having to make trade-offs as they consider how an unvaccinated worker might affect other workers and customers, or a potential return to the office.
Courts have ruled, in general, that the obligation to provide an accommodation for employees with a disability is higher than the obligation for an employee with a religious belief, Tippett said. Employees seeking accommodation are not entitled to disrupt a workplace, she said.
What will Washington agencies do?
Employers are typically careful not to ask more questions than needed to make a decision for a religious exemption request. Otherwise, Tippett said, the questioning can come across as harassment.
A sample religious exemption form and guidance from Inslee's office advise employers to ask whether requesters have a religious belief preventing them from receiving the coronavirus vaccine, and whether the requesters have ever received "a vaccine or medicine from a health care provider as an adult."
If a requester says no to either question, employers are advised to follow up with additional questions, including how the religious belief conflicts with vaccination, how long the requester has held those religious beliefs and whether he or she objects to other vaccines and medicines.
The documents from Inslee's office also note that following their guidance will not "shield any employer from legal challenges," and advise employers to review their accommodation policies with legal counsel.
Ultimately, decisions will be determined on a case-by-case basis by individual employers.
"That is the story of this entire pandemic. Most of public health has been left up to private employers," Tippett said.
School districts will also have "complete authority" on religious accommodations decisions, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the superintendent's office.