Posted April 16th, 2021.
By Justin Wise
Law360 (April 16, 2021, 4:35 PM EDT) — Civil rights firm Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP is requiring all of its employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine to return to the office, according to a firmwide memo obtained by Law360 on Friday.
The new mandate coincided with an announcement from Chairman David Sanford that the firm’s six U.S. offices would “officially open” on June 1. The firm is not requiring attorneys and employees to return to the office then, but said that individuals who do choose to return must be vaccinated.
“Your presence in the office is completely voluntary and subject to your own desires and ability,” Sanford said to the firm’s roughly 100 employees. “Everyone returning to the office beginning June 1 must be vaccinated and must follow our firm’s updated COVID-19 protocols.”
The protocols include social distancing and mask wearing. Sanford was not immediately available for comment Friday to discuss how the firm plans to enforce the policy.
Government guidance says that businesses can legally mandate COVID-19 vaccines, as long as they provide reasonable accommodations or exemptions to employees who don’t receive the shot because of an underlying disability or because of their religious beliefs.
The decision from Sanford Heisler comes as businesses across industries navigate how to safely transition back to the office as the rate of vaccinations picks up. All American adults are due to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine by April 19.
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, a firm with about 550 lawyers, in January announced that employees would be required to show proof of a vaccine to return to the office or go to a work-sponsored event.
“For folks coming into the office and for in-person events, we’d like them to be vaccinated,” Scott MacCormack, who was recently named the firm’s managing partner, told Law360 in an interview this month. “There obviously will be exceptions to that and we’ll be flexible.”
But the legal industry mostly appears to be staying away from a strict mandate. Fifty percent of law firm and in-house leaders that participated in a Morrison & Foerster LLP survey in March said their organizations would not require employees to get a vaccine, while 40% said they were unsure. Ten percent of respondents said they planned to require the shot.
DLA Piper Americas Chair Frank Ryan previously told Law360 that the firm is not making vaccines mandatory right now but is recommending all employees get one. He said the firm, which is among the biggest in the U.S., would reevaluate its in-person work policies in May.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance in December outlining how businesses could go about vaccine requirements while also complying with federal employment laws barring discrimination based on religion or disability. The guidance noted that employers should first strive to make accommodations or exemptions in those scenarios, and that workers could be lawfully blocked from going into the office if those were not possible.
“This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker,” the guidance said. “Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.”
As businesses address these questions, though, lawmakers in some states, including Tennessee and Texas, have introduced legislation that would grant protection from mandatory vaccine mandates, according to a state-by-state overview maintained by Husch Blackwell LLP.
Beyond the vaccine requirement, the new Sanford Heisler memo also said that workers would be expected to return to the office at least some of the time by Sept. 9. It acknowledged that such a plan was subject to change based on health conditions.
“We hope that this plan allows everyone the flexibility to transition back to our offices safely and conveniently,” Sanford said.
Most firms have yet to make decisions on when they will ask attorneys and staffers to begin returning to the office more regularly. Legal leaders have noted that at least some flexible remote work policies will likely remain in place.
–Additional reporting by Aebra Coe and Vin Gurrieri. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.