On November 10, 2021, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that he would sign legislation that addresses various COVID-19–related issues, including vaccine mandates and mask mandates. The law is effective immediately. There are several major issues for employers regarding COVID-19 prevention measures addressed in the new law. Below is an overview of the law’s key points.
The law does not prohibit private employers from adopting vaccine mandates. It seeks, in an indirect manner, to restrict employers from mandating vaccines. The law focuses on prohibiting employers from requiring proof of vaccination status. The express language of the new law is as follows: “A private business, governmental entity, school, or local education agency shall not compel or otherwise take an adverse action against a person to compel the person to provide proof of vaccination if the person objects to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine for any reason.”
It would appear that the law potentially creates a perverse “don’t ask/don’t tell” incentive for both employers and employees. If an employee openly objects to receiving a vaccine, an employer can still ask why—to determine if there is a bona fide Title VII religious or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation issue—but the employer would appear to be able to discharge or discipline the employee for the employee’s objection (absent accommodation issues). What a Tennessee employer cannot do is ask employees for proof of vaccination status and then take an adverse action if the employees fail or refuse to provide proof of their vaccination status. By contrast, an employee might have an incentive to keep quiet and not answer (or lie) if asked about vaccination status.
An earlier version of the legislation sought to prohibit mask mandates entirely. The version that has become law limits the prohibition on mask mandates to government employers: “An employer that is a governmental entity shall not require an employee to wear a face covering as a term or condition of employment, or take an adverse action against an employee for failing to wear a face covering, unless severe conditions exist at the time the requirement is adopted and the requirement is in effect for not more than fourteen (14) days.” (Emphasis added.)
The law allows employees discharged for refusing to be vaccinated to receive unemployment benefits—and it is retroactive.
Medicare and Medicaid Vaccine Requirements
The law excludes from its coverage healthcare providers that are subject to Medicare or Medicaid vaccine requirements. On November 5, 2021, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services published its interim final vaccine mandate rules.
The new law allows employers, private businesses, schools, and state and local governmental entities to apply to the state comptroller for exemption from the requirements of the statute if compliance would result in a loss of federal funding. This exemption process would allow employers that are federal contractors to seek exemption.
Federal Emergency Temporary Standard
The law may set up a potential showdown between the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over the implementation and enforcement of OSHA’s recently issued COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for large employers (100 or more employees). The Tennessee law’s prohibition on compelling employees to provide proof of vaccination status is in direct conflict with the federal ETS (which requires employers to determine the vaccination status of each employee, including requiring each vaccinated employee to provide “acceptable proof of vaccination status”).
State OSHA plans, such as Tennessee’s, have 30 days to adopt the federal standard. However, the Tennessee law includes a provision that prohibits any state funds from being allocated to implement or enforce any “federal law, executive order, rule, or regulation that mandates the administration of a COVID-19 countermeasure” (including vaccines, testing, and masking). TOSHA receives funding from both the state government and the federal government. It is unclear whether TOSHA will be eligible to seek an exemption as described above. While the language of the exemption provision would appear to apply to TOSHA, the statements of proponents of the Tennessee law during the special session of the Tennessee General Assembly during which the legislation was approved made it clear that their efforts were aimed at curbing the impact of the federal ETS in Tennessee.
On Monday, November 8, 2021, TOSHA issued the following statement: “Tennessee OSHA is currently reviewing the latest OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard regarding vaccines in the workplace. As the agency did with the prior ETS, staff will review the OSHA standards and then determine how Tennessee will move forward. This process could take multiple weeks to complete.”
Business groups were strongly opposed to this new law, and that opposition contributed to the legislative shift away from an outright ban on vaccine mandates and to the narrowing of the anti-mask provision. There are still questions to be answered regarding this new law, including whether it will be challenged in court, what the process for requesting an exemption will look like, and whether Tennessee will adopt the federal COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing ETS.
Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.