Back in November 2021, Tennessee had previously passed legislation that laid out provisions for private businesses not being able to “compel or otherwise take an adverse action against a person to compel the person to provide proof of vaccination if the person objects to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine for any reason.” According to the legislation, such negative action would entail:
- Discriminating against a person by denying the person employment, privileges, credit, insurance, access, products, services, or other benefits; or
- Discharging, threatening, or otherwise discriminating against an employee in any manner that affects the employee’s employment, including compensation, terms, conditions, locations, rights, immunities, promotions, or privileges.
Tennessee is now taking those employee protections regarding vaccination, one step further by enacting Senate Bill 1823 (SB1823) in order to provide additional protections to employees that may be subject to a COVID vaccination mandate. On March 11, 2022, SB1823 was signed by Governor Lee and went into effect immediately. Through this amendment, Tennessee law now provides additional protection by allowing for medical or religious exemptions from a vaccine mandate. Specifically, an employer that requires a person to provide proof of vaccination or requires an individual receive the COVID-19 vaccine must grant the person an exemption to the policy if:
- They provide a valid reason for a medical exemption supported by a statement that has been signed and dated by a licensed healthcare provider; or
- They state that they have a religious belief which prevents them from complying with the policy.
Additionally, SB1823 now requires that an employer must respond within two business days to any request for a medical or religious exemption. That being said, there is no mention within the legislation that would prevent an employer from denying an exemption request that would ultimately pose an undue hardship on the organization or create a direct threat to others in the workplace. In the event of a denial of an exemption request, the employer would have to produce a written explanation to the individual, explaining the exact reasons behind the denial. Any employer that is found to be in violation of SB1823 may be subjected to a fine of up to $10,000.
Next Steps for Employers
Employers that have enacted vaccine mandate policies should review their current policies and procedures, particularly, to ensure they have language and procedures for requesting an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Employers are encouraged to seek the assistance of legal counsel in order to ensure that the newly enacted employee protections are not violated.