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VERIFY: Yes, it's legal for private businesses to require vaccines

More companies are deciding to require proof of vaccination every day. The Verify team is breaking down the legal details.

WASHINGTON — Vaccine mandates are popping up more and more, including from private companies and local governments. On social media, there are many critics, questioning whether these mandates are legal. 

The Verify team spoke with employment lawyers to break down when these mandates are allowed, and when they are not. 

THE QUESTION

Can a private company issue a vaccine requirement to their staff members? 

THE SOURCES

  • Nick Woodfield, Principal and General Counsel for Employment Law Group
  • Lawrence Gostin, Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University; Director of World Health Organization's Center On Global Health Law

THE ANSWER

Yes, according to our legal experts, a private company is allowed to require vaccines for their staff members, so long as they provide an exemption for medical or sincerely held religious reasons. 

WHAT WE KNOW

According to Nick Woodfield from the Employment Law Group and Lawrence Gostin from Georgetown Law, a private company is able to require a vaccine for their staff and even terminate an employee if they refuse. 

"In the United States, it's mostly at-will employment," said Gostin. At-will employment means an employer can dismiss or fire an employee without a warning and for any reason - on top of being able to fire them for regular violations or causes

In a system with "at-will employment," an employer can fire a staff member for any reason, so long as it is not discriminatory against a protected class. 

"You can not hire people because they don't like strawberries," said Woodfield. "You can not hire people because they wear their baseball hats backwards in pictures on Facebook. You can not hire anyone for a plethora of reasons, or not allow them to work in your office for a plethora of reasons." 

Characteristics like race, gender, and disability are protected against discrimination because of laws passed on the federal level. Similarly, vaccine mandates could become illegal if laws are passed on the local, state, or federal level. 

"Until it's illegal," said Woodfield, "it's legal to terminate people and to require them to be vaccinated." 

Gostin said that this applies to a large range of workplaces. 

"Any private company, whether it's a supermarket, a factory, or a white collar office, has an interest in safety," he said. "They all have the absolute right to require vaccinations as a condition of working there. 

RELATED: VERIFY: Yes, if you are fired for not getting a required vaccine, you can be denied unemployment benefits

THE QUESTION

Can a private company issue a vaccine mandate for their customers? 

THE ANSWER

Yes, private companies can mandate vaccines for their customers because it is not considered discrimination against a protected class. 

WHAT WE KNOW

Our legal experts said that private companies are legally allowed to require proof of vaccination for their customers. 

"Yes, they can do that," said Gostin. "It's not unlawful at all... You've seen it throughout the pandemic, and even before the pandemic -- No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. They can add vaccinations to that." 

A private company cannot ban service in a discriminatory way, targeting a protected class. But, this does not apply to those who choose to be unvaccinated. 

"The only limitation that I have is they can't discriminate against you because of your race, or your sex, or your sexual orientation, or your disability," said Gostin. "But they can certainly set reasonable safety conditions for shoppers." 

Our experts said that this also applies to venues, like concert halls. 

"Just like - you know - I can scan you for weapons, or I can prohibit you from smoking, or even prohibit you from coming in drunk," said Gostin. "You're posing a risk to their other clients. You're literally exposing them to a deadly disease."