Illinois Clears Way for Employers to Take Stronger Measures to Combat COVID-19

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

November 10, 2021

Illinois employers that wish to terminate, otherwise discipline or deny employment to workers who refuse to be vaccinated will soon have an easier path to doing so.

Effective June 1, 2022, Illinois will amend its Health Care Right of Conscience Act to make it much harder for individuals in the state to seek to block employer mandates that certain workers receive COVID-19 vaccines or disclose their vaccination status as a condition of employment.

In doing so, Illinois is taking a rather unique route to stiffen COVID-19 mandates. The Health Care Right of Conscience Act was passed in 1977 to shield doctors and other health care workers for refusing to participate in abortions. The law states that doctors and health care workers cannot be held liable for refusing to provide services that violate their conscience. The Act also makes clear that an employer cannot discriminate against an individual who refuses to take part in or receive health care services that are contrary to their conscience.

But in recent months, some employees had used that law to obtain restraining orders against their employers' vaccine mandates. This amendment to the law forecloses using it as a vehicle for such challenges.

"Masks, vaccines, and testing requirements are life-saving measures that keep our workplaces and communities safe," said Governor J.B. Pritzker. "Keeping workplaces safe is a high priority, and I applaud the General Assembly for ensuring that the Health Care Right of Conscience Act is no longer wrongly used against institutions who are putting safety and science first."

The amended Illinois law does explicitly reiterate federal protections of sincerely held religious objections.

Its passage came just a few days after the Biden administration released the details of its Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring employers with 100 or more employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face weekly testing. The ETS is estimated to cover 84 million employees nationwide. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has granted an emergency motion to stay the enforcement of the ETS in a lawsuit filed by a group of businesses and a number of states, including:

  • Texas;
  • Louisiana;
  • Mississippi;
  • South Carolina; and
  • Utah.

Similar challenges have been filed elsewhere, including in the 6th, 8th and 11th Circuits. However, several states - including Illinois - have passed laws requiring that certain workers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by a specified date.