The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its guidelines recently to address this specific question—but there are still some exceptions to the rule.

For months, there have been questions about whether your employer can require you to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Now, there's an official answer: Yes, your employer can mandate that you get the vaccine if you want to keep working for them.

That's the word from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. The EEOC updated its guidelines on navigating COVID-19 in the workplace at the end of May, and doubled down on its stance that federal employment laws don't interfere with a company's ability to require employees to get vaccinated if they're going into an office or other shared workspace.

Credit: Getty Images / Photo Illustration by Jo Imperio

"The EEOC's guidance says that requiring vaccination does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act or other federal employment laws," Larry Stuart, an employment lawyer in the Houston-based law firm Stuart PC and an adjunct professor at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, tells Health. "It is not illegal to require employees to get a vaccine as a condition of employment."

So, just a heads up if you've been on the fence about whether or not to get vaccinated: You may have to choose between getting the jab and keeping your job. But, like all laws, there are some exceptions. Here's what you need to know.

What, specifically, does the EEOC say about vaccination requirements?

The EEOC said in its guidance that the organization has fielded "many inquiries" from workplaces about how, exactly, to handle this issue.

"The federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19," the EEOC says. "These principles apply if an employee gets the vaccine in the community or from the employer."

The EEOC urges employers to be aware that this can be a sticky situation, though. "As with any employment policy, employers that have a vaccine requirement may need to respond to allegations that the requirement has a disparate impact on—or disproportionately excludes—employees based on their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin," the EEOC writes. "Employers should keep in mind that because some individuals or demographic groups may face greater barriers to receiving a COVID-19 vaccination than others, some employees may be more likely to be negatively impacted by a vaccination requirement."

The EEOC also says that it would be "unlawful" to have vaccination requirements that treat employees differently based on disability, race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity), national origin, age, or genetic information, "unless there is a legitimate non-discriminatory reason."

Are there any exceptions to employers requiring you to get a COVID vaccine?

The EEOC makes it clear that federal employment law says that "in some circumstances," the law will require employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" for "employees who, because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, do not get vaccinated for COVID-19, unless providing an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business."

Basically, that means if you have an allergy to an ingredient in the vaccines or are a Christian Scientist, you may be exempt from the requirement. In that case, your employer will need to do certain things to keep you and your coworkers safe.

"That could mean a number of things," Stuart says, including allowing you to work remotely for a set period of time. If remote work isn't an option, it may also mean physically separating you from your coworkers and having you work while wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. Basically, the same things people were doing before the vaccine was available.

Can you be fired for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Technically, yes, although Stuart says it's not necessarily a given. Obviously if you have a health reason why you can't get vaccinated or qualify for a religious exemption, this shouldn't be an issue from a legal perspective.

But if you don't want to get vaccinated and don't qualify for an exemption, your workplace will need to make some hard choices. "Employers don't have to fire people, but they will have to make a decision on whether they're going to enforce mandatory vaccine requirements," Stuart says. "It's possible if someone just refuses to get vaccinated and that's a condition of coming back to work, that person could be fired, according to EEOC guidance."

There is also a potential of being put on unpaid leave if or until requirements change at some point. Employers with vaccine mandates "don't have to fire everyone, but if they're going to take adverse actions against people who don't want to get vaccinated, they have to do it for everyone," Stuart says.

Of course, all of this hinges on your workplace having this requirement in the first place. If you're unsure of your company's policy, talk to your boss or HR manager. They should be able to help guide you.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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