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New Tennessee Law Further Limits Federal Vaccine Mandates

In November, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill into law that prohibits most employers from compelling or taking adverse action against employees to compel them to provide proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. The Tennessee law directly contradicts the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) vaccine mandate, which requires the staff of certain Medicare or Medicaid providers and suppliers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This contradiction left some Tennessee employers in a quandary as they could not simultaneously comply with both laws. The only relief for these employers was a provision in the Tennessee law that employers at risk of losing federal funding for noncompliance with the CMS vaccine mandate could apply to be exempt from the Tennessee law. 

Now, Tennessee lawmakers have provided employees of these exempted entities their own exemption to the exemption. Under a new law effective March 11, 2022, employers who received exemption from the prior Tennessee law and have a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy must grant wide medical and religious exemptions to employees who refuse to receive the vaccine. SB1823/HB1867, signed into law last week, requires employers who are subject to a federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate to grant exemptions to anyone: (1) who provides a medical exemption request supported by a statement from a licensed healthcare provider or (2) who simply states they have a religious belief that prevents them from complying.

The law further prohibits an employer from:

(1) Taking longer than two business days to grant or deny the person's request for an exemption;

(2) Denying a request for an exemption without a written statement explaining why the request was denied;

(3) Discharging, threatening to discharge, or reducing the compensation of a person who is granted an exemption; or

(4) In regard to a religious exemption, requiring the person to provide proof beyond the person's initial statement to be granted an exemption.

The new Tennessee law allows employers to hypothetically comply with the CMS vaccine mandate, but it effectively requires them to grant a compliance exception to any employee who asks and prevents the employer from evaluating the validity of an employee’s religious exemption request. It also creates a pitfall for employers who do not set up a process to quickly review and respond to exemption requests. Failure to comply with the new law is punishable by a civil penalty of $10,000.

If you have any questions about vaccination programs or policies and accommodation requests, please contact Waller’s employment group.

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