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New Iowa Law Requires Employers to Grant Medical and Religious COVID-19 Vaccination Exemption Requests

on Friday, 29 October 2021 in Covid-19 Information Hub

On Friday, October 29, 2021, Governor Kim Reynolds signed House File 902, a bill passed by the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate the day prior.  The bill contained an immediate implementation clause and is now Iowa law.

The new law states that an employer shall grant a medical or religious exemption from a COVID-19 vaccination mandate:

“if the employee requests a waiver and submits either of the following to the employer:

  1. A statement that receiving the vaccine would be injurious to the health and well-being of the employee or an individual residing with the employee.
  2. A statement that receiving the vaccine would conflict with the tenets and practices of a religion of which the employee is an adherent or member.”

Presumably the “statement” can be provided by the employee, meaning the employee does not need to provide verification from a health care provider or spiritual leader of the need for the exemption.

Unlike the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the new Iowa law contains no provision allowing an employer to deny an employee’s medical exemption request on the basis the unvaccinated employee will pose a direct safety threat to others in the workplace.  Moreover, unlike Title VII of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act, the new Iowa law contains no provision allowing an employer to deny an employee’s religious exemption request on the basis it creates an undue hardship on the employer.

The new Iowa law may be susceptible to a legal challenge that it is preempted by federal government requirements that federal contractors, employers with more than 100 employees, and recipients of Medicare and Medicaid funds mandate the vaccine for their employees.  While the federal requirements will allow exemptions for medical and religious reasons, the likely standard for granting such exemptions will flow from either the ADA or Title VII.  Those federal laws allow an employer to require an employee to verify the need for the exemption if there is any doubt, and to not employ an individual if they will present a direct safety threat or pose an undue hardship by remaining unvaccinated.  Because the new Iowa law forecloses such inquiries and actions by employers, it arguably frustrates the federal goal of maximizing the number of vaccinated workers and improving workplace health.

Additionally, the new law revises Iowa’s unemployment compensation statutes by providing that employees terminated from employment for refusing to be vaccinated shall not be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.  Effectively, this will apply only to those employees who refuse the vaccine for reasons not involving health or religion (as employees who object on a medical or religious basis should not be terminated, but instead have their exemption requests granted).

The new law does not contain any penalty for employers that refuse to grant an employee’s medical or religious exemption request.  Nevertheless, if an employee’s medical or religious exemption request is denied and the employee is terminated, the employee will likely bring a wrongful termination lawsuit claiming the employer violated public policy (as expressed in the statute).

Employers should also note that nothing in this new law prohibits them from requiring unvaccinated employees to wear masks or physically distance, to reassign unvaccinated employees to jobs with less contact with other individuals, or to require unvaccinated employees to work from home.

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