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CNN Fires Some Unvaccinated Employees. Can Your Employer Do That?

People at an office wearing face masks.

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Key Takeaways

  • CNN fired three employees for showing up to work unvaccinated, a violation of CNN's COVID-19 company policies.
  • According to legal experts, employers may fire employees for violating COVID-19 protocols because there are no federal laws prohibiting company vaccine mandates. 
  • People who get fired over a vaccination mandate are unlikely to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

On Thursday, August 5, news powerhouse CNN shared that they fired three employees for violating the company's COVID-19 policies. Despite CNN’s implementation of a vaccine mandate, three employees went to the office unvaccinated.

The company had previously made it clear that vaccines were mandatory if employees were reporting to the office or out in the field where they come into contact with other employees.

With work offices still navigating the COVID-19 landscape and now, the highly contagious Delta variant, more workplaces are instituting vaccine mandates and additional COVID-19 safety precautions.

According to Matthew Dimick, PhD, JD, professor of law at the University of Buffalo’s School of Law, an employer can legally fire employees for violating COVID-19 protocols because the relationship between the employer and employee is contractual.

"Parties to that contract, in this case, employer and employee, can agree to any terms and conditions that are not already expressly prohibited by statute,” Dimick tells Verywell. 

While individuals are guaranteed certain constitutional rights, Scott Atwood, JD, a shareholder with Henderson Franklin, tells Verywell that constitutional rights only protect people from infringements from the government.

"The constitution prohibits the government restricting you from doing something, mandating you from doing something,” not private employers, Atwood says. 

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees to get vaccinated when physically entering the workplace.

Employers can implement this law as long as they are complying with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the American Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964–which protects employees and job applicants from employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and national origin.

Holding up an Argument in Court 

If employers mandate vaccines, Dimick says it would be considered an employee “privacy” issue in court. While no cases of this nature have currently been raised in a court of law, Dimick explains that common law doctrines protect a person’s privacy against an invasion by another private actor, such as an employer. 

“However, an employer’s interest in protecting the health and safety of the workforce is a pretty strong argument for a reasonable impingement on another co-worker’s privacy right not to be vaccinated,” Dimick explains. 

Privacy protections found in federal and state constitutions only regulate the actions of government entities and do not apply to private actors like employers, he adds.

On the other hand, if an employee refuses to get vaccinated and is fired, Dimick says that the employer can argue that there was no invasion of privacy because the employee never got vaccinated.

According to Atwood, there are limited circumstances in which employees are given job protections in a situation like this, including religious or medical exemptions. 

What This Means For You

Your employer can require you to get the COVID-19 vaccine for in-person work, as unvaccinated individuals can pose a health threat to other employees at the workplace.

Navigating Solutions 

Getting fired over a vaccine mandate can cost individuals unemployment aid. In many states, individuals must prove that they are out of work at no fault of their own.

Kelly DuFord Williams, JD, founder and managing partner of State Law Group specializing in business and employment law, stresses the importance of navigating potential solutions, such as a work-from-home-model, to prevent these situations. 

“If that person was able to do their job from home for the last year and a half, keep them out of the workplace, if possible,” Williams tells Verywell. “There are plenty of solutions out there versus just firing somebody because of a vaccine issue.”

Based on a new survey conducted by CNBC, executives across major U.S. companies state that hybrid models will remain, but will not become the dominant form of employment. The hybrid model may not stick around forever, underscoring the importance of cross-collaboration between employers and employees to curb the virus and keep others safe, Dimick says. 

“The sooner everyone is vaccinated, the sooner things can return to some kind of normalcy,” Dimick says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC Issues Updated COVID-19 Technical Assistance. Updated May 28, 2021.