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Michael Majchrowicz
By Michael Majchrowicz April 29, 2021

No, it’s not illegal for a college or employer to require a COVID vaccine

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  • There are no legal mechanisms in place that would prevent any institution, whether it’s an employer or school, from mandating COVID-19 shots, though exemptions can be made for those with certain disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs, as provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

A viral Facebook post claims it is illegal for schools and employers to mandate vaccination against COVID-19, citing the vaccines’ emergency use authorization status.

With all adults in the United States now eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, businesses and schools are continuously assessing how to safely allow for employees and students to return to in-person operations.

"If any college, public school, employer, etc tries to ‘mandate’ the latest prick it’s completely illegal for them to do so," the April 21 all-caps post reads. "The prick has been released under the EUA (Emergency Use Authorization) & is not FDA approved. It cannot be mandated."

The post was flagged as part of efforts by Facebook to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post is inaccurate. A growing number of employers and colleges across the country are mandating that workers and students get vaccinated. And while their decisions could face legal challenges, scholars say courts have found such institutions to be on solid footing. 

First, emergency use authorization is a declaration made by the secretary of health and human services that allows for emergency use of drugs or products during a public health emergency such as a pandemic.

To qualify for emergency use, the new drugs must be fully tested in clinical trials involving tens of thousands of participants. Drug makers have to submit reports on the outcomes and effects on every participant. The chemistry behind the drug, details of the manufacturing process, and the details of the quality controls in place are also required.

Second, there are no legal mechanisms in place that would prevent any institution, whether an employer or school, from mandating COVID-19 shots, though exemptions can be made for those with certain disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs, as provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As PolitiFact has reported, vaccination records are already required for certain jobs, school registration and travel abroad. The World Health Organization requires travelers to be inoculated against yellow fever, and some countries have additional vaccination requirements, such as for the poliovirus. Immigrants to the U.S. must be vaccinated against a slew of diseases. 

Dr. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, whose research at the University of California Hastings School of Law focuses on legal issues related to vaccines, told PolitiFact in an interview that while some may test this in court, institutions that are mandating the vaccine are "not doing anything wrong."

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In February, Rubinstein Reiss wrote a post for Harvard Law’s bioethics blog arguing that, although there was some room for legal interpretation, a vaccine mandate would meet little resistance in a court of law.

"Employment in the United States is at-will, and employers can fire employees for almost any reason, with few exceptions from anti-discrimination laws," she wrote.

"Employers can certainly fire employees for violating a health and safety requirement, or for outright refusing to follow it. Vaccine mandates in the workplace are such a requirement, and have been used for a long time, for example, to require influenza vaccines for health care providers."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2020 updated its guidance concerning worker-protection laws to state that employers could dismiss employees who opt to not get vaccinated due to religion or disability so long as the employer has exhausted all "reasonable accomodations."

Similarly, as of April 27, at least 108 U.S. colleges and universities — both public and private — were requiring students and staff to be fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus before returning to campus this fall, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education database. They include the University of California system, Yale University, University of Notre Dame and University of Michigan.

A California court in December 2020 upheld the University of California system’s mandate from July of the same year that all returning students taking classes in person receive the flu vaccine. 

Citing data from the American College Health Association, The Wall Street Journal reported last fall that in a sample of 86 higher education institutions, roughly 14% required flu shots, and nearly 70% were beefing up efforts to encourage participation among students and staff.

Our ruling

There are no legal or legislative mechanisms that broadly prohibit employers or schools from mandating vaccinations. It is not illegal for them to do so, though federal law stipulates that exemptions can be made for those with conflicting religious convictions and certain disabilities.

We rate this claim False.


RELATED STORY: No, Biden didn't promote 'mandatory' COVID-19 vaccines in primetime address

Our Sources

Facebook post, April 21, 2021

Phone interview with Dr. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, University of California Hastings School of Law, April 26, 2021

Harvard Law Petrie Flom Center, Can employers mandate a vaccine under emergency use authorization?, Feb. 24, 2021

Harvard Law Petrie Flom Center, Can colleges and universities require student COVID-19 Vaccination?, March 16, 2021

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Here’s a list of colleges that will require students or employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, accessed April 27, 2021

The Washington Post, Maryland public universities will require vaccinations for returning students, employees, April 23, 2021

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine EUA fact sheet for recipients and caregivers, Dec. 20, 2020 (revised April 6, 2021)

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Pandemic preparedness in the workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Oct. 9, 2009 (updated March 21, 2020)

PolitiFact, No, Biden didn't promote 'mandatory' COVID-19 vaccines in primetime address, March 12, 2021

STAT News, Employers can require workers to get authorized Covid-19 vaccines, April 5, 2021

The Wall Street Journal, More colleges require flu shots of students and employees, Oct. 19, 2020

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No, it’s not illegal for a college or employer to require a COVID vaccine

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