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Can your employer require you to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

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MADISON (WKOW) -- With approval now here and widespread distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine expected over the next several months, can your employer require you to take it?

"We are not requiring it at UW Health," said Dr. Matt Anderson, senior medical director of primary care.

Dr. Anderson says UW Health believes the vaccines to be safe and the science to be sound, but they're not forcing employees to take it.

"Some people may have reservations while we're under an Emergency Use Authorization, and those reservations are not something that we feel are necessarily illegitimate," Dr. Anderson said.

Those are sentiments echoed by other Madison hospitals as well -- encouragement instead of requirement.

"I think that this may be the preferred approach for a lot of employers," said Jennifer Piatt, a senior attorney with the Network for Public Health Law.

She says most employers will have an easier time that way, though making it a requirement -- or else -- is not against the law.

"A termination in an at-will employment state is valid," Piatt said.

That goes back to case law from 1905 -- Jacobson v. Massachusetts -- which came about during smallpox and is the reason schools can require vaccinations nationwide.

Even as politicized as COVID has become, Piatt doesn't expect that ruling to be overturned.

"Jacobson stands the test of time," she said.

What's trickier now is hat the vaccine is coming from an Emergency Use Authorization -- but Piatt says, even then, vaccination can still be mandated by employers.

"That person has to have the ability to refuse, and they have to be told the consequences of their refusal," she said. "The act does not say that refusal has to come with no employment consequences."

Piatt says anti-discrimination protections -- like for religion -- would still need to be upheld with the COVID vaccine, as well as any other state laws or exemptions.