Alabama Restricts Employers’ Ability to Impose Vaccine Mandates

Alabama vaccine mandate Alabama employment law
The Alabama Legislature passed SB9 restricting the ability of employers to impose vaccine mandates.

Late last week, the Alabama Legislature passed, and Governor Kay Ivey signed, SB9 which is designed to restrict the ability of Alabama businesses to impose vaccine mandates on their employees.  Here is a link to SB9:  SB9 Limiting Vaccine Mandates.  While there are many unanswered questions in SB9, I think most Alabama businesses will be able to comply with federal vaccine mandates while simultaneously complying with SB9.

Here are my big takeaways regarding SB9:

1.  Employers are required to give their employees a specific vaccine exemption       form.

Employers cannot require any employee to receive a vaccination as a condition of employment without providing an opportunity to be exempted for religious or medical reasons.  Most importantly, employers must use a specific form drafted by the Legislature.  To access that form: (1) click on the the SB9 link above; (2) go to page 2, line 18 of SB9; (3) “cut and paste” all text through page 5, line 5.  The form must be made “readily available” to all employees along with directions for submitting the form.

2.  Denials of exemptions are appealable and employers cannot terminate employees based upon vaccination status until conclusion of an appeal.

If an employer denies an exemption request, the employee will be allowed to appeal that denial to an Administrative Law Judge appointed by the Alabama Secretary of Labor.  If the ALJ also denies the exemption, the employee will be able to file an appeal with a court of competent jurisdiction.

SB9 also recognizes that employers might want to terminate based on vaccination status after denying an exemption.  The new law prohibits any such termination until an administrative law judge or court issues a final ruling in the employer’s favor.

3.  Here’s what SB9 DOESN’T do.

SB9 does not limit an employer’s ability to gather information.  It says that employers must provide the Alabama form to employees.  But, it does not say this is the only form that can be given to employees.  SB9 does not restrict the duty or obligation of employers to engage in an “interactive process” with employees who request an accommodation or exemption.

SB9 does not limit the accommodations that an employer can require.  In fact, SB9 says nothing whatsoever about accommodations.  Some of my risk-averse clients have been fairly liberal in granting exemption requests even before SB9 was passed.  Indeed, exemption from the vaccine is not an exemption from the obligation to protect your co-workers.  Employers who grant exemptions under SB9 can also require that employees test for COVID-19 weekly and wear masks while around other employees.

3.  The Alabama grounds for exemption are expansive.

The Centers for Disease Control has extensively discussed the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine on particular groups of people.  (CDC COVID-19 Vaccine Discussion).  This new Alabama law seems to take a different view of COVID-19 and allows employees to attempt to opt-out of vaccines based on:  (1) their own  statements of health history; or, (2) a generic statement that the vaccine conflicts with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances — without requiring a statement defining those beliefs.  Here’s the complete list of grounds for exemption:

  •  My health care provider has recommended to me that I refuse the COVID-19 vaccination based upon my current health conditions and medications.  (Note:  This is the only ground that requires the signature of a “licensed health care provider.”  Other health-based reasons discussed below don’t require any medical support.)
  • I have previously suffered a severe allergic reaction (e.g., anaphylaxis) related to vaccinations in the past.
  • I have previously suffered a severe allergic reaction related to receiving polyethylene glycol or products containing polyethylene glycol.
  • I have previously suffered a severe allergic reaction related to receiving polysorbate or products containing polysorbate.
  • I have received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma as part of a COVID-19 treatment in the last 90 days.
  • I have a bleeding disorder or am taking a blood thinner.
  • I am severely immunocompromised such that receiving the COVID-19 vaccination creates a risk to my health.
  • I have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 12 months.
  • Receiving the COVID-19 vaccination conflicts with my sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.

4.  Mandated exemption or just a presumption?

SB9 says that “[a]n employer shall exempt vaccination as a condition of employment for any employee who has submitted the exemption form ….”  This seems fairly clear:  If the employee fills out the State-sponsored exemption form, they don’t have to get vaccinated.

But, the law later says that “submission of the completed form creates a presumption that the employee is entitled to the exemption.”  Moreover, it sets forth a process for an employee to challenge a “denial of a request for an exemption.”  Thus, it seems that employees don’t automatically get an exemption if they fill out the form.

This internal inconsistency is important.  In the next few points, I discuss conflicts between SB9 and federal mandates.  If completing the form is a mere “presumption” of exemption, then Alabama employers might be able to argue that the presumption is rebutted by the requirements of federal law.

5.  There are conflicts with the vaccine mandate for federal contractors.

The most glaring ground for exemption under SB9 is COVID-19 diagnosis in the last 12 months.  That exemption flies directly in the face of the federal contract mandate (found here Federal Contractor Mandate) which plainly states that “covered contractor employees who have had a prior COVID-19 infection are required to be vaccinated ….”

Notably, the federal contractor mandate allow employers to grant exemptions for health reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs.  So, in some ways, SB9 comports with that mandate.  This is where it is important for Alabamians to know if exemption is mandated upon completion of the SB9 form or if it is merely a presumption that can be rebutted.  If it’s a presumption, then I think that a federal contractor could argue that the presumption of exemption for past COVID-19 infection is rebutted because federal law does not allow an exemption for federal contractor employees on that ground.

6.  There are conflicts with the CMS mandate for many medical facilities.

I discussed CMS’s vaccine mandate for medical facilities here:  CMS Vaccine Mandate.  That mandate imposes strict requirements on employees who seek exemptions for medical reasons:

For staff members who request a medical exemption from vaccination, all documentation confirming recognized clinical contraindications to COVID–19 vaccines, and which supports the staff member’s request, must be signed and dated by a licensed practitioner, who is not the individual requesting the exemption, and who is acting within their respective scope of practice as defined by, and in accordance with, all applicable State and local laws. Such documentation must contain all information specifying which of the authorized COVID–19 vaccines are clinically contraindicated for the staff member to receive and the recognized clinical reasons for the contraindications; and a statement by the authenticating practitioner recommending that the staff member be exempted from the facility’s COVID–19 vaccination requirements based on the recognized clinical contraindications.

Obviously, SB9 does not require that level of detail for employees to obtain an exemption for medical reasons.  Indeed, Alabama apparently prefers that employers to just take the employee “at their word” for a host of medical issues.

Once again, the issue will be whether exemption is mandatory once the employee submits the SB9 Form.  If the form merely creates a presumption, then facilities covered by the CMS mandate might be able to argue that the presumption is rebutted by the CMS mandate requiring a more-detailed statement for medical exemptions.

7.  No direct conflict with the OSHA mandate for employers with 100+ employees.

Last week, OSHA also imposed a vaccine mandate on employers with 100 or more employees.  I wrote about that mandate here:  OSHA Vaccine Mandate.  The OSHA mandate offers employers the option to adopt:  (1) a policy mandating all employees be vaccinated; or, (2) a policy where employees can “test out” of vaccine requirements.  Under the “test out” option, employees are not required to be vaccinated if they test for COVID-19 on a weekly basis and observe masking protocols.  If Alabama employers adopt the “test out” option, there does not appear to be a direct conflict between OSHA and SB9.

Even so, there is some level of conflict.  As discussed above, SB9 grants an exemption to employees who have been infected with COVID-19 in the last 12 months.  But, the OSHA standard “does not offer any exemptions to vaccination requirements based on ‘natural immunity’ or the presence of antibodies from a previous infection.”

8.  Is leave without pay an option?

SB9 only restricts the ability to terminate an employee.  What if an employer decides not to “terminate”?  In other words, an employer could grant an exemption and then move the employee to long-term leave without pay status.  This would be an aggressive strategy by the employer.

Technically, the employee could not appeal under SB9 because that law only allows appeals where exemptions are denied.  But, long-term leave without pay would probably be considered a “constructive discharge.”  Employers adopting this strategy would probably face a legal challenge of some kind.

9.  Additional possible loophole?

Section (h)(2) of SB9 says:  “Nothing in this section shall be construed to alter or amend the ability of an employer to terminate an employee for reasons other than the employee’s COVID-19 vaccination status.”  This seems to reiterate that Alabama is an “employment at will” state.  This means that, in the absence of an employment contract, an employer or employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time.  Indeed, “employment at will” is so strong in Alabama that courts repeatedly say that an employee can be fired “for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all.”

SB9 also clearly states that it does not “create or imply a private cause of action for employees who are terminated after refusing to receive a vaccination mandated by their employer.”  This means that employees cannot sue for wrongful termination.  Instead, the only remedy allowed by SB9 is review “of an employee’s denial of a request for an exemption” by an Administrative Law Judge and Alabama’s courts.

I think creative attorneys could figure out ways to argue that a termination is “for reasons other than the employee’s COVID-19 vaccination status.”  I also think that a “mixed motive” analysis (where vaccine status and some other reason provide the impetus for termination) could provide a defense.

10.  The Alabama Department of Labor has to provide a process for employees.

SB9 requires that the Alabama Department of Labor develop a process for employees to appeal the denial of their exemption requests.  DOL is supposed to release that process by November 26.  In that process, DOL must appoint Administrative Law Judges to review the appeals.  And, even after the ALJ rules, employees must be given the right to file a further appeal in “a court of competent jurisdiction.”

As soon as DOL issues its rules regarding the appeal process, I will provide an update.

11.  Closing Thoughts

I think the Legislature’s main goal in passing SB9 was to force businesses to think-twice before terminating an employee based upon a vaccine mandate.  And, SB9 dramatically slows the process for terminating employees on that ground.

But, as a practical matter, I was already advising my clients to think-twice before termination.  Any time an employee asks for a religious or disability accommodation of any kind, an employer incurs risk if they terminate soon thereafter.

Each of  of the federal  vaccine mandates allows employers to exempt employees who have disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs.  SB9 is designed to liberalize the process for granting exemptions.  But, at the end of the day, employers just need to proceed carefully and gather as much information as reasonably possible before deciding to grant or deny an exemption request.  If an exemption is denied, employees can now appeal that denial to an ALJ and drag the process out.  Otherwise, the process largely remains the same.  Employers just have to use the additional form mandated by SB9 as part of that process.