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Companies can require workers to be vaccinated before returning to office, attorney says

'This is uncharted ground,' says West Palm Beach labor lawyer Arthur Schofield
WPTV's Michelle Quesada speaks to South Florida labor attorney Arthur Schofield on March 29, 2021.jpg
Posted at 2:42 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 17:38:43-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In just days, all adults in Florida will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. And with that comes the potential of companies bringing more remote workers back into physical office workspaces.

But can your employer require you to get vaccinated before returning to the office?

"This is uncharted ground," said Arthur Schofield, a labor and employment discrimination attorney in West Palm Beach.

Schofield spoke live to WPTV senior reporter Michelle Quesada on the WPTV Facebook page Monday afternoon about your rights when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine and work.

WATCH INTERVIEW:

South Florida labor attorney talks COVID-19 vaccine and work

Schofield said that companies can indeed require you to be vaccinated before returning to office settings, and it all comes down to workplace safety.

"When the employer, again, is looking to maintain a safe environment, not only for his clients or customers but also for their fellow workers, they're going to be able to require the vaccine before they allow certain folks to return," Schofield said.

Schofield compared the vaccine issue to similar mandates that businesses have which require their employees to wear face masks on the job.

"You're working for an employer. The employer can say, look, if you don't do as I ask and get the vaccine, whatever it might be, you're not coming into work today. You don't have a job," Schofield said.

If that's the case and you're let go for not getting vaccinated, Schofield said you may be eligible for unemployment benefits if the vaccine mandate isn't in writing as a documented company policy.

"Let's say the employer says, here's our new policy manual and you have to get vaccinated. Refusing to comply with a known policy can be identified as misconduct and could result in a denial of unemployment benefits," Schofield said. "The worst thing that unemployment can ever tell you is that you're ineligible for benefits."

All Floridians ages 40 and older are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Starting on April 5, all state residents 18 and older, as well as patients who are 16 and 17 and receiving the Pfizer vaccine, can get their shots.

If you've gotten vaccinated but are nervous about returning to work, or have religious beliefs against vaccinations, Schofield said you can ask your employer to make a "reasonable accommodation" to allow you to continue working from home.

However, he said those accommodations are going to be industry specific. For example, restaurant and bar workers need to be on site in order to complete their job responsibilities.

"If it's an employment setting where they can work from home or it's a matter of simply turning on the screen, I would say that person's gonna be in a much better position to ask for that accommodation," Schofield said.

If you're truly concerned about the safety of your work environment and believe your company is violating social distancing and other health guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Schofield said you can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA has the ability to send investigators and inspectors out, examine your workplace, and make suggested safety changes.

"That would be the avenue for someone saying, look, whether they're vaccinated or not, I'm showing up at a workplace where I'm exposed to unhealthy, unsafe conditions," Schofield said.

For more information about the rights of employees, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.