- A former scout for Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals filed a lawsuit against the team April 20, alleging that it violated District of Columbia and federal law when it denied his request for an exemption from the Nationals’ mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy (Gallo v. Washington Nationals, No. 1:22-cv-01092 (D.D.C. April 20, 2022)).
- The former employee sought a religious exemption from the policy and proposed to instead use a mask while indoors and when in close contact with others, as well as test weekly. A Nationals HR representative said in court documents that the team would accommodate the plaintiff’s beliefs “if it could,” but said his being unvaccinated while on the job would “pose an unacceptable risk” to the health of employees, customers, visitors and others.
- The suit seeks reinstatement of the plaintiff in addition to back pay, and other relief. The Nationals did not immediately respond to an HR Dive request for comment.
In its long-running COVID-19 technical assistance document, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated that employers generally should assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices or observances. However, EEOC said employers may ask for an explanation of how those beliefs, practices or observances conflict with a vaccination requirement.
Court documents show the Nationals did just that. In a document dated Aug. 25, 2021, the former employee responded to a list of questions sent by an HR representative that included items such as, “Have you been vaccinated for other viruses?” and “Have you rejected other vaccines before because of your religious beliefs?”
The EEOC has cautioned, however, that even if an employee’s answers reveal prior inconsistent conduct, “an individual’s beliefs—or degree of adherence—may change over time and, therefore, an employee’s newly adopted or inconsistently observed practices may nevertheless be sincerely held.” Furthermore, the agency has said that “[n]o one factor or consideration is determinative, and employers should evaluate religious objections on an individual basis.”
In the suit, the plaintiff alleged the Nationals organization failed to engage in an interactive process to identify possible ways to accommodate the employee’s request. It also alleged the team “did not explain why it cannot provide an accommodation, or why an accommodation would present an undue burden — nor can it do so.”
Per EEOC, an employer can demonstrate that accommodating an employee’s religious accommodation request would pose an “undue hardship” if that request would require the employer to bear more than a “de minimis” or minimal cost to do so. EEOC said that such costs may include not only direct monetary costs, but also burdens such as the risk of spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.
Federal regulations on vaccination requirements remain an active area of employment law in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s January ruling that stayed the Biden administration’s emergency temporary standard on COVID-19 vaccination. Management-side attorneys previously told HR Dive that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration may revisit vaccination regulations in the future.
In the meantime, attorneys have also said that employers with vaccine mandates may want to explore alternatives to termination in the event that employees resist getting vaccination for reasons other than those explicitly protected by federal, state and local laws.