Can Tampa Bay employers mandate COVID-19 vaccines now that FDA has fully approved Pfizer?

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — With the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine now fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, more Tampa Bay area institutions are mandating shots.

8 On Your Side has received many questions about the rules on vaccine mandates and exemptions: What are they, who do they apply to and when?

In Florida, there’s been confusion around this issue, partly due to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on so-called vaccine passports. However, legal experts tell us the ban applies to customers and patrons of businesses – not employees.

Mandates begin in wake of approval

The impacts of the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine Monday were immediately felt. Institutions including the Pentagon and CVS announced a vaccine requirement.

Some health care systems in Tampa Bay followed suit.

Tidewell Hospice is part of a large not-for-profit in the Tampa Bay area and Southwest Florida. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Neville Sarkari says vaccines will now be required for all workers, volunteers and vendors.

“We provide a lot of care for a lot of people who are vulnerable,” Dr. Sarkari said. “I don’t know if we’ll lose anybody. We’re prepared that we may lose a few people.”

Dr. Sarkari says the requirement will be phased in and most of the staff will have to be vaccinated by Nov. 1, 2021.

Can employers require vaccinations?

“Employers can require their employees in Florida to be vaccinated,” Meredith Gaunce, an employment attorney in St. Petersburg, explained.

Pursuant to guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, your boss can mandate vaccination and proof as long as two exemptions are provided: a medical and religious exemption.

Gaunce says the bar is high for the exemptions.

“During the last few months, I’ve been working with a lot of employers and I have yet to see any of these exemptions actually come to fruition,” Gaunce said.

For a medical exemption, you need a detailed doctor’s note outlining why the vaccine is dangerous for you, Gaunce says.

A religious exemption is trickier.

“Honestly, we’re sort of waiting to see how that’s going to – how that’s going to play out because it really is very rare,” Gaunce said. “There are very few religions… that object completely to vaccinations.”

The exemption request must be made in good faith. Gaunce says you’d have to prove this isn’t a new religion of convenience by, for example, verifying attendance in a church or religious organization.

What employers need to know

Employers do have to be careful about how they’re storing vaccine cards.

Gaunce says the feds suggest the cards be kept under lock and key, and not in a personnel file.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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