It is that time of year, Halloween has come and gone, folks are thinking about Thanksgiving and flu season is upon us. Here at Fox Rothschild LLP, the firm has already offered free flu shots to those employees who want one. And, I can report that I gladly got my free flu shot.

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Some employers actually mandate that employees receive a flu vaccination.  Workplaces like hospitals, nursing homes, schools and jails often require employees to obtain flu vaccinations since there is a vested interest in protecting patients, students and inmates.

But, as a recent settlement by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital makes clear, mandatory flu shot programs can be tripped up by all kinds of employee claims.  In the matter settled by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Plaintiff Sakile S. Chenzira, a customer service representative, was terminated after refusing to submit to a flu vaccine that included animal by-products which she claimed conflicted with her bona fide religious beliefs of veganism.

The Hospital argued that Ms. Chenzira’s veganism was simply a social philosophy or a dietary preference, but lost that argument during the motion to dismiss phase.

This case is an important reminder to employers everywhere, especially as the holiday season approaches, that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes a wide view of the definition of “religion” or “religious”.

  • For purposes of Title VII, religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others. An employee’s belief or practice can be “religious” under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it. Title VII’s protections also extend to those who are discriminated against or need accommodation because they profess no religious beliefs.
  • Religious observances or practices include, for example, attending worship services, praying, wearing religious garb or symbols, displaying religious objects, adhering to certain dietary rules, proselytizing or other forms of religious expression, or refraining from certain activities. Whether a practice is religious depends on the employee’s motivation. The same practice might be engaged in by one person for religious reasons and by another person for purely secular reasons (e.g., dietary restrictions, tattoos, etc.).

While I, myself, am a vegetarian I still availed myself of the free flu shot.  But, it is important for employers to be sensitive and to respond appropriately to employees that present with requests based on sincerely held beliefs.

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Dori K. Stibolt is a senior associate with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Dori defends and counsels management in labor and employment litigation matters pertaining to wage and overtime claims, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave/restraint, and whistle-blower claims.  You can contact Dori at 561-804-4417 or dstibolt@foxrothschild.com.