Iowa's New Vaccine Requirement Law Requires Careful Attention From Employers
October 29, 2021
By: Frances M. Haas, Thomas M. Cunningham, Mary E. Funk
Today, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed House File 902 into law, which enacts new Iowa Code sections 94.1 and 94.2, and amends Iowa’s unemployment statute, Iowa Code Chapter 96. We provide a brief summary of what employers need to know.
To whom does it apply?
The new law applies to all employers who pay wages to an employee in the State of Iowa.
What does it do?
The new law targets employers who mandate employee COVID-19 vaccinations, and requires employers to “waive” a COVID-19 vaccine requirement if the employee furnishes either of the following statements: (1) receiving the vaccine would be “injurious” to the health and well-being of the employee “or an individual residing with the employee”; or (2) receiving the vaccine would conflict with the tenets and practices of a religion to which the employee is an adherent or member. An employee who is fired “for refusing to receive a vaccination from COVID-19” is not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.
When is the new law effective?
The law became effective today, October 29, 2021.
Is the law consistent with long-standing law on religious and medical exemptions?
No. Before today, under long-standing laws that prohibit religious and disability discrimination, employers were permitted to gather more information about an employee’s claimed need for an exemption. The new law does not require or even permit an employer to require medical certification of the need for an accommodation / exemption. Rather, a statement from an employee that receiving the vaccine would cause the employee some emotional angst would seem to fulfill the requirements of being injurious to one’s “well-being”. How the employee’s receipt of a vaccine may be injurious to the health or well-being of another person living with the employee is frankly unanswerable. This new law is a “get out of jail free” card as far as employer mandates of a COVID-19 vaccine, and requires employers to simply follow an employee’s stated preference.
Is the law consistent with federal laws or rules?
No. The law, as written, is inconsistent with President Biden’s Executive Order that requires federal contractors to vaccinate employees. It may also be inconsistent with other executive orders or rules that we expect to see issue from the federal government, such as OSHA’s emergency temporary standard that will apply to employers with more than 100 employees. As Iowa has its own state OSHA program that is required to adopt and follow the standards of Federal OSHA in order to have a legally viable program, the new statute may be setting the stage for a direct conflict with a forthcoming federal requirement within a state agency itself. And, the new law is inconsistent with federal anti-discrimination laws that require employers to engage in an interactive process to understand an employee’s requested need for an accommodation.
Will an employer be liable for terminating an employee who refuses to be vaccinated?
Potentially. The law, as written, requires an employer to waive a vaccination requirement if an employee furnishes one of the two types of statements described above. If an employer refuses to provide a waiver after receiving such a statement and then terminates the employee, it’s possible that an employee may try to file a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of the public policy of the State of Iowa. This potential is described in more detail here. That being said, the employer is not required to fire someone who refuses a vaccine and has an exemption. The EEOC has held that, absent state law to the contrary, a person’s vaccination status is not a protected class under federal civil rights statutes such as Title VII and the ADA; yet an employer may want to explore possible other accommodations such as remote work or long-term unpaid leave for valuable employees.
Does the law prohibit employers from requiring masks or requiring employees who refuse to be vaccinated to test regularly?
No. The law does not prohibit employers from requiring unvaccinated employees to undergo regular COVID-19 testing (even at the employee’s expense, subject to any forthcoming federal rules), nor does it prohibit employers from mandating that unvaccinated employees wear masks.
Will anyone challenge the legality of the new law?
Potentially. The new law appears to be susceptible to a challenge that it is preempted by federal law, or that it is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech and due process rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
With federal regulations concerning COVID-19 vaccination on the horizon, the fallout from this new law likely will not be known until after the issue has been addressed through litigation. Nyemaster Goode’s Labor and Employment Department is ready to assist employers in navigating the dynamic legal intricacies of this important workplace issue.