THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN HRLAWS.COM’S TENNESSEE EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER BY BUTLER SNOW’S David L. Johnson.
In April 2019, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) entered into a settlement with Saint Thomas Health (the world’s largest Catholic health system), requiring it to pay $75,000 to a worker fired for refusing a flu shot based on religious beliefs.
Julian May was employed by TouchPoint Support Services, which had a contract to provide food and environmental services to Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital in Murfreesboro. Saint Thomas had a policy requiring all hospital personnel, including TouchPoint employees, to get an annual flu shot.
Citing his religious beliefs as a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America, May asked to be exempt from the policy. In 2013 and 2014, Saint Thomas granted his exemption request but made him wear a protective mask. When he asked for another exemption in 2015, however, Saint Thomas denied his request and told TouchPoint he wouldn’t be allowed to work at the hospital regardless of whether he wore a mask. Consequently, TouchPoint fired May.
The EEOC sued Saint Thomas on May’s behalf, alleging the hospital failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thereafter, the agency and the hospital settled and entered into a consent decree. According to the settlement’s terms, the hospital must:
- Pay May $75,000;
- Modify its policy so workers can appeal their termination if they requested an accommodation for their religious beliefs;
- Provide annual training for two years to its HR employees and members of its flu committee;
- Send May a letter of apology and an assurance it will be fair in the future; and
- Notify the EEOC each year of all religious discrimination claims it receives.
It would’ve been really interesting to see how this would have turned out if Saint Thomas hadn’t settled. As a hospital operator, it undoubtedly had a very compelling justification for its policy requiring all workers to get a flu shot. It’s unclear why the hospital initially agreed to allow May to wear a protective mask in lieu of a flu shot but then reversed course. If medical experts on its flu committee genuinely felt a protective mask was insufficient to mitigate the spread of the flu and patient health would be endangered, then that decision ought to be afforded considerable deference. May’s precise job duties were also unclear, however, as was the extent to which he would have posed meaningful risks to patients. If Saint Thomas granted exemptions to its policy for other workers—such as workers who couldn’t have a flu shot due to medical reasons—why not extend the exemption to May and others with religious objections?
It’s possible the EEOC may have been less concerned with the fact Saint Thomas precipitated May’s termination and more concerned with the apparent blanket policy requiring all personnel to get a flu shot without any exception for sincerely held religious beliefs. In other words, Saint Thomas should have had a better process in place to allow greater deliberation for an accommodation request by May or someone else. Perhaps it would have reached the same decision, but it would have afforded more due process. It’s rarely prudent to have a policy in place that never allows for any exceptions.