COVID-19 Vaccines: Employer Mandate & Incentive Issues UPDATED

Regular readers of this blog know that I limit my practice to ERISA and employee benefit issues. However, my partner Paul Wilcox has stepped in as a guest co-author to address the employment law issues around COVID-19 vaccines and your workforce (Q&A 1 – 4, below). I follow up below with a few questions on using wellness incentives to encourage employees to get vaccinated. This updated post reflects EEOC guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations that was issued on December 16, 2020.

Q.1: Now that COVID-19 vaccines are coming, can I require employees be vaccinated as a condition of employment?
A.1: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has recently issued guidance indicating that requiring vaccination of employees is generally permissible. However, the EEOC also says that employer must consider accommodation of disabilities and sincerely held religious beliefs that are inconsistent with vaccination.  Additionally, some commentators have questioned whether the fact that the current COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the FDA on an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) might limit the employer’s authority to mandate vaccination.  Whether there is any merit to that argument has yet to be resolved, but the EEOC guidance indicating the mandating vaccination is generally permissible mentions the EUA status of the current vaccine but says nothing that directly indicates that EUA authorization by the FDA limits the right of employers to require vaccination.  This is an open question.

Q.2: Do we have to treat all employee objections to vaccination equally or do some types of objections trigger legal duties of accommodation, etc.?
Q.2: The law requires employers to consider reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities who may be particularly impacted by vaccination and for people with religious beliefs that are inconsistent with vaccination. Whether an accommodation of a disability or religious belief is required depends on the circumstances, but the employer generally must consider the issue even if the ultimate answer is that the requested accommodation will not be granted. In its recent guidance on mandatory vaccinations, the EEOC noted that, however, accommodations which would result in a direct risk of harm to other persons are not required.

Q.3: Will I get in trouble if I only require some employees, such as customer-facing workers, get vaccinated but not other employee groups?
A.3: No, not necessarily. Making distinctions between employees based on job duties is generally permissible.

Q.4: Will my company face potential liability if an employee has a bad reaction to the vaccination? Does it matter that the current vaccine was approved by the FDA on an EUA?
A.4: The law also does not provide a clear answer to this question, although the general answer is that employer liability for work-related injuries is confined to the workers’ compensation system, so any liability might be covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Workers’ compensation is a “no fault” system, meaning that whether the injury was caused by negligence or in the absence of negligence is not a relevant issue.

Q.5: Can I offer wellness program incentives to encourage employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine?
A.5: Yes. The incentive could take the form of a cash reward or gift card, for instance. Note that cash and cash equivalent rewards are taxable to employees and are generally compensation counted under 401(k) and other retirement plans.

Q:6: Is there a dollar limit on the incentive I could offer?
A.6: Not a flat dollar amount or percentage, but the incentive must be reasonable in amount. As Paul noted above, vaccinations are characterized as medical examinations and therefore you must abide by ADA regulations governing wellness plans. Those regulations are aimed at insuring, among other things, that employee participation in work-related wellness programs that include medical examinations, such as health risk assessments, is voluntary on the part of the employee. In past years the EEOC has sued employers whose wellness rewards it deemed to be excessive. On January 7, 2021, the EEOC issued proposed regulations that would permit only de minimis incentives for participatory wellness programs such as a vaccination program. Examples of de minimis incentives include a water bottle or small gift card. The regulations will be reviewed by the Biden Administration and may not be finalized as currently drafted, but employers whose wellness programs include COVID-19 vaccinations should consult with counsel as to whether or not they should limit incentives to de minimis amounts or items. Employers that are offering an incentive to employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations from public agencies or third party vendors who are not part of the employer’s wellness program or group health plan may not be subject to the de minimis incentive limitation, but should confirm with independent legal advice.

Q.7: If employees have a disability that makes the vaccination inappropriate for them, do we still need to offer a way for them to earn the vaccination incentive?
A.7: Yes. Reasonable accommodation provisions in the ADA wellness regulations remain in effect, such that you must modify or adjust your wellness program for persons with disabilities that make the COVID-19 vaccine medically inadvisable. Examples might be virtual/remote attendance at a class on COVI9-19 mitigation measures such as mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing.

Q.8: Do I have to notify employees about the special incentive offered for getting a COVID-19 vaccine?
Q.8: That is not clear at the present time. Notification duties under ADA wellness regulations form 2016 would have required a notice be provided when employees’ medical information is gathered, such as in a vaccination process. The 2016 regulations required that the notice be written in a language reasonably likely to be understood by the participating employees, describe the type of information that will be gathered, and describe the confidentiality measures that are in place to protect this information. In its proposed 2021 wellness regulations the EEOC waives the notice requirement as unnecessary when the de minimis incentive applies. Employers with participatory wellness programs that would be subject to the de minimis incentive limit, if enforced, should consult counsel as to whether or not to comply with the notice requirements from the 2016 EEOC wellness regulations.

Note: The above information is a brief summary of legal developments that is provided for general guidance only and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Readers are encouraged to seek individualized legal advice in regard to any particular factual situation.

(c) 2021 Christine P. Roberts and Paul K. Wilcox, all rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Top photo: Emin Baycan, Unsplash

Benefits Provisions of the Tax Relief Act of 2010

On December 17, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (the “Tax Relief Act” or “Act”). The Act was the result of painful compromise between fiscally conservative and liberal factions in Washington, D.C. Basically the Obama administration agreed to a two-year continuation of certain income and other tax cuts dating back to 2001, in exchange for an additional 13 months of continued unemployment benefits.

You can read the 74-page text of the Act here, and the 177-page Congressional explanation of the Act here.

The Act significantly changes the estate planning landscape through 2012. For more information on the specific opportunities that exist during this brief window of time, contact an attorney in Mullen & Henzell LLP’s Estate Planning Group.

The Act also makes a 2% reduction in employees’ share of FICA taxes for 2011 (the Old Age, Survivors and Disability component, not the Medicare component), from 6.2% down to 4.2%. The employer’s portion is unchanged, at 6.2%. A comparable change is made to self-employment taxes. Even before the Act became law, the IRS issued new income tax withholding tables reflecting the 2% reduction.

The Act also affects a number of employer-provided, tax-qualified benefits, as listed below, by lifting the December 31, 2010 expiration date that otherwise would have applied under 2001 and subsequent tax laws. Unless otherwise stated all changes expire on December 31, 2012:

• Educational assistance plans under Internal Revenue Code (“Code”) Section 127 are given another two-year lease on life. The maximum dollar amount that employers can provide (whether as direct payment for education or in the form of an employee reimbursement) remains $5,250 per calendar year. Unlike education reimbursements provided as “working condition fringe benefits” under Code Section 132(d), benefits provided under Section 127 may cover study that is not necessarily limited to improving the employee’s existing skill set.
• The Act extends certain adoption benefits through 2012. The maximum adoption tax credit, and the maximum tax-exempt employer reimbursement for adoption expenses under Code Section 137, will remain at indexed rates (subject to phase-out for adjusted gross income starting at $182,500). The 2010 dollar limit was $13,170. For 2011, the maximum dollar amount of the credit or exclusion from income will be $13,360 however this will drop to $12,170 in 2012 because the Act did not extend a $1,000 increase in the limit made under the health care reform bill. For this same reason, the adoption tax credit is not refundable after 2011.
• Qualified transportation benefits under Code Section 132(f) are also continued at current levels, through December 31, 2011. Employees may exclude up to $230 from income each month in employer-provided mass transit and/or vanpool benefits; this combined dollar limit was linked to the separate $230 dollar limit that applies to employer-provided parking benefits under the 2009 recovery act. Thus, up to $460 is available per employee, per month for transportation and parking expenses. The $230 dollar limit that applies to mass transit and vanpool benefits only (not parking) was slated to drop to $120 per month on January 1, 2011.
• Tax-free IRA distributions to charitable organizations are extended through 2011. Although the Act permits 2010 IRA distributions to be made to a charitable organization through January 31, 2011, the IRS recently announced that there is no “re-do” available for individuals who took 2010 distributions prior to passage of the Act on December 17, 2010. The Wall Street Journal discusses the IRS announcement, and predicament to taxpayers, here.