Can you require workers on your farm to be vaccinated? Sure, but is it a good idea?

If you are a farm business owner, you may very well be wondering whether you should encourage vaccination of your workers, or even if it’s legal to require it as a condition of the job.

In December 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued updated guidance on this very matter (see Section K. Vaccines), and as a very helpful NPR article on the guidance reports, sure enough, it is legal to require the vaccine, BUT…As with most legal and regulatory issues, there are exceptions.

Employers must take into consideration religious views of employees and also disabilities of employees. Employees cannot be obligated to be vaccinated if it is against their religion to do so, or if they are at high-risk for complications from the vaccination due to say, an underlying health condition. (However, sidenote: this is all to be balanced with the reasonableness of making these accommodations. For example, a nurse might decide not to get vaccinated because it’s against his religion. But, the hospital employer may determine that allowing an unvaccinated nurse to come to work every day would be unreasonable as it would put too many people at risk. The hospital in that case may not be required to accommodate the nurse and allow him to work unvaccinated.)

So…Yes you can require your farm workers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. But not if it’s against their religion, and not if getting the vaccine would put their health at risk. Also, you may think that the coronavirus vaccine is all the rage these days, that everyone is clamoring for a dose of it, getting on waiting lists and into the lotteries and seeing if maybe, just maybe, they can get an unused dose before it’s tossed in the garbage as “expired.”

But, not everyone is excited. Many people have concerns about its safety, or think it won’t work, or think that it will cost a bunch of money, or just plain don’t trust that’s it in their best interest.

Many in the Latino community are particularly distrustful of the vaccine. In an NBC News interview, Dr. Alexandra Franco, an internal medicine and infectious disease specialist at Clinica Sierra Vista in Bakersfield, California, spoke about some of the things she was hearing from her farmworker patients, most of whom are Mexican and Central American migrants working in the grape and orange fields. Dr. Franco said that they are traumatized from anti-immigrant rhetoric of late, and have told her they are afraid the vaccine is being used to “get rid of them.” Others have said they fear that if they have the vaccine, it will allow the government to “track them down and deport them.” They told her they also heard the vaccine will reduce women’s fertility, and even change their gender.

So it’s important to know what the legality of requiring the vaccine is, but another important factor to consider is what your workers think about the vaccine. You may consider asking what they think about it, and finding out if they have fears or concerns about it. Provide helpful information about the vaccine so they can make an informed choice. As we say all the time at Farm Commons, so much of legal resilience is centered on creating and maintaining good relationships, which requires open communication at all times. This is especially true with arguably your most valuable asset: your farm workers.

Also read this Civil Eats article Getting Farmworkers Tested and Vaccinated Depends on Building Trust.