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Federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate suspended for businesses: Here's the latest update

After getting blocked by a federal appeals court, OSHA has suspended enforcement of the mandate that was slated to start in January.

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Your employer can soon legally terminate your employment if you refuse the vaccine or regular COVID-19 testing.

Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

The Biden administration's enforcement of the COVID-19 vaccine requirement has been suspended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The mandate would require those working for businesses employing 100 or more people to get fully vaccinated or tested weekly by Jan. 4, 2022, the White House said. It was blocked by a federal appeals court earlier this month, which ordered OSHA to not take steps to enforce the mandate and to wait until further court order. The requirement is designed to curb the surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the virus, including the delta variant.

The mandate is part of President Joe Biden's new employer vaccination mandate issued in September, and would cover 84 million workers. The Biden administration hopes to sway tens of millions of people into getting vaccinated. Unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely than vaccinated people to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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"We're going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers," Biden said in September after he announced the mandate. Breakthrough COVID-19 cases, which occur when vaccinated people contract the disease, are far less deadly than cases in unvaccinated patients but can still produce long-term effects, including "long COVID."

The push to require vaccinations has prompted a backlash. A group of Senate Republicans sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, saying they'd oppose all efforts to implement and enforce the COVID-19 vaccine. The letter said, "The decision whether to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is a highly personal one that should never be forced upon individuals by the federal government."

We'll tell you about the suspension of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for companies. Also, here's the latest on booster shots for Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.

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What's going on with the OSHA suspension of the vaccine mandate?

The decision on Nov. 6 by a three-judge panel from the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Louisiana halted the Biden administration's vaccine and testing mandate for large companies. The ban stops OSHA from implementing the mandate requirements, therefore OSHA has suspended its enforcement of the Emergency Temporary Standard, pending the outcome of future litigation. The challenge claims OSHA exceeds its authority with the mandate.

The Biden administration responded to the ban, asking private businesses to continue with the vaccine mandate. Roughly 24 states are challenging the mandate in court, NPR reported, including a separate lawsuit filed by 11 states as reported by the New York Times.

The federal government requires companies to mandate the vaccine

Even before Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, US employers could require employees to be vaccinated during pandemics under federal law.

The Biden administration issued new requirements for all companies with 100 or more employees to ensure they are either fully vaccinated or produce negative test results at least once a week. The rule could give employers the option of making unvaccinated employees pay for the weekly testing, Bloomberg Law reported

Because it's federally mandated, the Department of Labor will require employers to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated. This includes time to get the shot and sick time to recover from any side effects.

Americans with Disabilities Act excuses some people from mandatory vaccination

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" to workers with medical conditions that would make them unable to get a vaccine. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognizes long COVID as a disability under the ADA

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, these civil rights protections apply -- even during emergencies -- and can't be waived.

Still, the CDC found that some long COVID patients say their symptoms improved after receiving the vaccination. The agency says more studies are needed to determine how the vaccine affects post-COVID conditions.

Does the Civil Rights Act apply to people with religious beliefs opposing vaccines?

At this time, it's unclear whether people will be able to decline the COVID vaccine because of their religious beliefs. Even within the clergy, some disagreement appears to have surfaced. For instance, Pope Francis is encouraging Catholics to get vaccinated, saying the Vatican approves of the various vaccines. Yet Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio says Catholic troops can refuse the COVID-19 vaccine (PDF) if receiving it would violate their conscience.

New York has been back and forth on religious vaccine exemptions. Health care workers filed a lawsuit against the mandate, saying it violates their First Amendment rights and the Civil Rights Act. On Tuesday, a judge ruled that those health care workers can seek religious exemption requests from a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said she'd fight the judge's decision, citing the public health crisis that COVID poses to New York state residents.

vaccine syringes
Sarah Tew/CNET

What happens if you object to receiving a vaccine when your employer requires it?

Just because you have a valid medical disability or theological objection to receiving a coronavirus vaccine doesn't mean your employer has to let you continue working under the same conditions you've been used to. Companies are required to make "reasonable accommodations" if an employee objects to receiving a vaccine for valid reasons. Such accommodations could include allowing the employee to work remotely or take a leave of absence. The employee could also show a negative COVID-19 test once a week, per the president's mandate.

If you don't have a medical condition per the ADA or religious reason for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, your employer has the right to terminate your employment. Note that you likely won't be able to claim unemployment benefits if that happens because your employer's reasoning for firing you would be "for cause" that's tied to complying with company policy.

Some companies are also considering imposing fines on unvaccinated workers refusing to get the shot. This could include raising health care costs, withholding raises and restricting access to workplace amenities. For instance, the NBA says it won't pay unvaccinated players who miss games.

A 1905 Supreme Court case allows employers to require vaccines

There are precedents for large-scale vaccination requirements in US law. In 1901, a deadly smallpox outbreak in New England prompted local governments to order mandatory vaccinations for everyone in the area. Some residents, however, objected, and one took it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that the government may impose "reasonable regulations," such as a vaccine requirement during pandemics, for the purpose of protecting the "safety of the general public." 

The court case forms the basis of guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which makes it clear that employers may make similar demands of their workers.

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How likely is your employer to require a COVID-19 vaccine?

If your company employs 100 or more workers, they will be legally required to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine or subject you to regular testing by Jan. 4, assuming the OSHA suspension is lifted. Smaller companies can also require workers to get vaccinated, although it's not considered a federal mandate. Here's more about who's required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

For more information, here's the latest on who's eligible for the Moderna COVID-19 booster shot and the Pfizer booster vaccine right now.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.