Washington State Fires Football Coaches for Vaccine Refusal, But Debate Rages Elsewhere

Author: David B. Weisenfeld

October 21, 2021

Washington State University (WSU) football coach Nick Rolovich has become perhaps the most high-profile employee in the nation to lose their job for refusing to comply with a vaccine mandate. WSU fired Rolovich and four of his assistant coaches for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine in violation of state law. Rolovich - who earned more than $3 million per year - was terminated with cause.

While Washington's mandate applies only to public employees and health care workers in the private sector, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has already said that private employers do not violate anti-discrimination laws by requiring all employees who physically enter the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Washington mandate went even further than President Biden's stated strategy of requiring all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure that their workforce is fully vaccinated, with weekly negative COVID-19 tests required for any unvaccinated employees. The Washington law provided no such option for weekly tests. Other jurisdictions also have adopted strict measures.

But a few states - most notably Texas and Arkansas - have recently gone in the other direction. For instance, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order last week banning all state entities, including private employers, from mandating that individuals receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Faegre Drinker employment attorney Stacey Smiricky, a partner with the firm's Chicago office, notes that bans like the one in Texas soon may not matter if the US Department of Labor requires employers with 100 or more employees to mandate the vaccine. But until then, she said, "Employers must keep track of each state's law on vaccine mandates to ensure compliance."

In Rolovich's case, the coach had sought a religious exemption from the Washington state vaccine mandate. But his request was rejected.

"Employers must be considerate of an employee's religious beliefs, but I have yet to find any religion that prohibits its followers from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine," said Smiricky. "Even Christian Science released a perspective on vaccinations stating its members are not prohibited from getting the vaccine."

An attorney for Rolovich has said he will file a lawsuit against his former employer, but courts generally have upheld vaccine mandates. And in this case, the mandate involves a state law.

"COVID is requiring difficult conversations between employers and employees," said Littler shareholder Bruce Sarchet. "The law has long prohibited discrimination based on religious beliefs. But in many cases, employers are saying I don't think your [religious] belief is sincerely held." Sarchet added that while some employers are pushing back, others are not really scrutinizing religious exemption claims too closely because of the labor shortage.

"Front-line supervisors and HR really need to spend time in advance thinking about these conversations," said Sarchet about accommodation requests generally.