Conversations around pregnancy, fertility and labor laws cropped up on Wednesday when multiple outlets reported the story of a Brooklyn waitress who was fired after saying she wanted to wait to get a COVID-19 vaccine until after she could do more research on its potential effects on fertility (these concerns are overwhelmingly considered unfounded by experts), per the New York Times.
Bonnie Jacobson told the paper that she was fired from her position at Red Hook Tavern on Monday, a few days after requesting to postpone getting vaccinated.
“I do support the vaccine. I’m not, as they say, an anti-vaxxer,” Jacobson told NBC News, and added that the lack of research so far around the mRNA vaccines and pregnancy had her concerned.
It should be noted, again, that experts, like Professor Lucy Chappel, professor of obstetrics at King’s College London and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, say there is no “plausible biological mechanism” by which the vaccine could affect your fertility, as the BBC reported last week.
Yet, this case touches on some complicated issues surrounding pregnancy, public health messaging and misinformation and labor rights. While these particular concerns about fertility have been debunked by experts and encouraging messaging that emphasizes the safety assurances we do have remains important, the unknowns when it comes to pregnant people (due to them being consistently left behind as a demographic in research) aren’t something you can always just dismiss as unwarranted or irrational vaxx hesitance — especially when it’s pregnant people wanting to advocate for their bodies and their fetus.
What do we know about pregnant people getting the vaccine?
Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant people are at a greater risk of becoming severely ill with COVID-19 (potentially leading to hospitalization or death) and are more at risk of “adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth, compared with pregnant women without COVID-19.”
“Limited data are currently available from animal developmental and reproductive toxicity studies,” per the CDC. “No safety concerns were demonstrated in rats that received Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before or during pregnancy; studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are ongoing.” And while researchers have plans to begin studies on pregnant individuals (with Pfizer announcing clinical trials on Thursday), there will be more information coming in.
However, they also note that mRNA vaccines, like the COVID-19 vaccines available “do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 and, therefore, cannot give someone COVID-19” and “do not interact with a person’s DNA because the mRNA does not enter the nucleus of the cell. Cells break down the mRNA quickly.”
“Based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant,” they add. “However, the actual risks of mRNA vaccines to the pregnant person and her fetus are unknown because these vaccines have not been studied in pregnant women.”
Can employers make you get vaccinated?
The other half of this equation is how much power employers have tp require employees to get a vaccine — because, yes, it is alarming to see someone lose their livelihood (which for many is directly tied to their ability to access healthcare) in a pandemic.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Employers may encourage or possibly require COVID-19 vaccinations, but policies must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and other workplace laws, according to the EEOC. Under the ADA, an employer can have a workplace policy that includes ‘a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.’ If a vaccination requirement screens out a worker with a disability, however, the employer must show that unvaccinated employees would pose a ‘direct threat’ due to a ‘significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.'”
“If an employee refuses to obtain a vaccine, an employer needs to evaluate the risk that objection poses, particularly if an employer is mandating that employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” John Lomax, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix told SHRM.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, the Society for Human Resource Management’s president and chief executive officer also added that employers would need to assess their reasons for not being vaccinated ahead of termination: “If an employee cannot get vaccinated because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, an employer could exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace. But this doesn’t mean an individual can be automatically terminated. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state and local authorities.”
Other legal experts recommend that, to combat hesitancy born out of misinformation, it’s crucial that management “lead by example” — through getting their own vaccines and through educational outreach, clear written expectations (fully researched) and explanations about why vaccinations are encouraged or required and incentivizing getting them when they are available.
“Rather than implementing mandates that could lead to such difficult decisions,” Brett Coburn, an attorney with Alston & Bird in Atlanta, told SHRM, “employers may wish to focus on steps they can take to encourage and incentivize employees to get vaccinated.”
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