As we have previously blogged, several employers are opting to impose vaccine mandates for their employees, and the Biden administration has announced that larger employers will soon be required to mandate vaccines. However, a federal court in Texas recently issued a temporary restraining order halting the enforcement of United Airlines’ vaccine mandate. This might leave some employers feeling confused: does this decision cast doubt on the legality of vaccine mandates? Not quite.
Although some headlines might have created the impression that United Airlines’ vaccine mandate was “struck down” or otherwise deemed illegal, the reality is that the Texas judge simply issued an order that temporarily suspended the mandate before the Court could hold a hearing on the issue. The plaintiffs – a group of employees seeking religious exemptions from the vaccine – had filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, essentially asking for the court to suspend enforcement of the mandate during the pendency of the case so as avoid irreparable harm. In issuing the temporary restraining order, the Judge was clear “the Court is not currently ruling on the merits of the parties’ arguments.” Rather, the judge just wanted to maintain the status quo pending resolution of the motion for preliminary injunction, and he gave no indication that he intended to ultimately grant the motion for preliminary injunction.
Employers who have instituted vaccine mandates have no reason to revise or rethink their policies, and are safe to continue enforcement of their mandates as long as accommodations are considered for religious and disabled employees. When it comes to requests for religious accommodations, the Supreme Court has held that employers need not grant religious accommodation requests if those accommodations would present “more than a de minimus burden” to the employer. This is different than accommodation requests based on disabilities, which can only be denied if they would pose a more significant burden to the employer. Assessment of accommodation requests requires a fact-intensive analysis, and employers should consult with an attorney before either granting or denying any such requests.