04/10/2019 Molly Moseley

Employer-mandated vaccines: protection or discrimination

Vaccinations are a hot topic, and the recent decision to fine unvaccinated people $1,000 in a certain New York neighborhood experiencing a measles outbreak is controversial to many people.

New York City has declared a measles outbreak in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to be a public health emergency, where hundreds of cases of measles have been reported. Unvaccinated people living in certain ZIP codes must now get the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR), if they haven’t already.

According to CNN, “Under the mandatory vaccinations, members of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will check the vaccination records of any individual who may have been in contact with infected patients. Those who have not received the MMR vaccine or do not have evidence of immunity may be given a violation and could be fined $1,000.”

Pro-vaccine folks are praising the efforts of New York City to curb the spread of a communicable disease. These people typically support the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule and believe in herd immunity: that vaccinated people protect immunocompromised individuals who are unable to be vaccinated.

Anti-vaccination advocates, of course, are outraged. They think the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefit, and they strongly believe in the right to choose if you vaccinate yourself or your children. Many don’t see measles as a big health risk. In fact, they sometimes expose their children to select diseases to allow their immune systems to fight them off and develop a natural immunity to it. For example, “measles parties” are reportedly occurring in Williamsburg.

This is not the first — and certainly won’t be the last — time these two sides are at odds. There have been news stories, and even lawsuits, about employers requiring employees to be vaccinated. Similarly to the city mandate, these organizations have made rules about employee vaccination protocol. This is particularly common in the health care industry.

So where do you draw the line when it comes to vaccine enforcement, particularly at an employer level?

If you work at a hospital, it probably makes sense to have certain employees vaccinated to protect everyone in the building. But what if an employee has a religious belief against it? Does it then turn into a form of discrimination?

A few big cases in 2018 ruled in favor of the employer. One such case: Allina Health Systems won a suit brought by a former employee who was let go due to her refusal to take an MMR vaccine after tests revealed she didn’t meet immunity requirements. Allina wanted to ensure all patient-care providers did not spread disease to patients, and therefore required the vaccine as a business necessity. After review, the court ruled she did not properly prove her discrimination claim.

What about employers in other industries? Your child’s school or day care probably keeps records of vaccines of children and employees, but imagine coming to work at your standard 8-5 office job and learning you must get the flu shot or potentially lose your job. Can any employer require vaccinations? Would an employer be held liable if they didn’t restrict non-vaccinated workers in the midst of an outbreak and an immunocompromised employee or customer contracted a disease and possibly died? Or what if an immunocompromised child of an employee died?

It’s difficult to know the answers to these tough questions on such a polarizing topic. How do you feel about cities or employers mandating vaccines? I’d love to know where you stand!