Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has signed into law a bill that expands protections for employees who are subject to employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The new law supplements existing state law that prohibits private employers and other entities from compelling or otherwise taking “adverse action” against a person to compel the person to provide proof of vaccination if the person objects to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine “for any reason.”  The law defines “adverse action” to include denying employment or discharging, threatening or otherwise discriminating against an employee “in any manner that affects the employee’s employment, including compensation, terms, conditions, locations, rights, immunities, promotions, or privileges.”  The existing law gives applicants and employees a right to seek injunctive relief and to recover compensatory damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees for violations.

Effective March 11, 2022, the new Tennessee law provides that “[a]n employer that requires a person to provide proof of vaccination or requires an individual receive the COVID-19 vaccine must grant the person an exemption to the policy if: (1) the person provides a valid reason for a medical exemption supported by a statement that has been signed and dated by a licensed healthcare provider; or (2) the person states that the person has a religious belief which prevents the person from complying with the policy.”  For an exemption based on religious belief, the law prohibits the employer from requiring an individual to provide further proof beyond their initial statement in order to be granted an exemption.  Notably, unlike federal law, there is nothing in this new law that enables employers to deny such exemption requests because the exemption would cause an undue hardship for the employer or otherwise create a direct threat to the employee or others in the workplace.

Employers also are required to provide a response to requests for an exemption within two (2) business days, and must not deny a request without a written explanation explaining why the request was denied. The law further prohibits employers from discharging, threatening to discharge, or reducing the compensation of a person who requests and is granted an exemption.

Violations of the new law are punishable by a civil penalty of $10,000.

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Photo of Evandro Gigante Evandro Gigante

Evandro Gigante is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the Employment Litigation & Arbitration group and the Hiring & Terminations group. He represents and counsels clients through a variety of labor and employment matters, including allegations of…

Evandro Gigante is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the Employment Litigation & Arbitration group and the Hiring & Terminations group. He represents and counsels clients through a variety of labor and employment matters, including allegations of race, gender, national origin, disability and religious discrimination, sexual harassment, wrongful discharge, defamation and breach of contract. Evandro also counsels employers through reductions-in-force and advises clients on restrictive covenant issues, such as confidentiality, non-compete and non-solicit agreements.

With a focus on discrimination and harassment matters, Evandro has extensive experience representing clients before federal and state courts. He has tried cases in court and before arbitrators and routinely represents clients before administrative agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as state and local human rights commissions.

Photo of Laura Fant Laura Fant

As a special employment law counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-administrative leader of the Counseling, Training & Pay Equity Practice Group, Laura Fant frequently counsels on a wide variety of employment matters, including employee leave and accommodation matters involving…

As a special employment law counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-administrative leader of the Counseling, Training & Pay Equity Practice Group, Laura Fant frequently counsels on a wide variety of employment matters, including employee leave and accommodation matters involving the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and related state and local laws. She also regularly drafts and advises on implementation and enforcement of employment and separation agreements, employee handbooks and company policies, as well as provides training on topics such as discrimination and harassment in the workplace, performance management, and the accommodation of physical and mental disabilities. Laura is a frequent contributor to Proskauer’s Law and the Workplace blog.

Before joining the Firm, Laura was assistant general counsel to the City of New York’s Office of Labor Relations. Prior to that, she was law clerk to Judge Jose L. Fuentes of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, and a judicial intern to Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.