Return-to-Work Series: Mandates, Policies and Everything In Between

Part 1: The Vaccine – What Is Your Policy?

By Denise Gatti, Senior Consultant, The HR Source

“The Vaccine” is a two word phrase that has become a ubiquitous part of the COVID-19 pandemic discussion. For the first installment of our Return-to-Work blog series, The HR Source takes a look at the pros, cons and other considerations associated with workplace vaccine policies. 

Since the start of the pandemic, businesses have navigated ever-changing COVID-19 workplace laws, regulations and guidance to make decisions. The EEOC’s updated guidance states that employers may make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory if unvaccinated employees present a “direct threat” to others in the workplace. Even though it is not illegal to mandate vaccines, employers must decide whether mandatory vaccines or encouraging vaccines is right for their company and its work culture. When making your decisions, leverage your vendor and health plan partnerships to clarify information specific to your organization, such as costs and coverage of vaccine administration for employees.

A mandatory vaccine program can give your employees, clients and customers a sense of safety and enable a return to in-person work. In business sectors such as retail, hospitality, healthcare, and education where employees’ jobs are not conducive to social distancing, a mandatory vaccination program may not only be beneficial, but necessary. The continued spread of the Delta variant coupled with the FDA’s full approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, has led more companies to mandate vaccines including Facebook, Amtrak, Citigroup, and Walmart. Leading the way is the recent vaccine-or-test mandate President Biden implemented for federal workers last month.

There are noted challenges to workplace vaccine mandates. If an employee has an adverse reaction to a mandatory vaccine, they may have a basis for a worker’s compensation claim. Legal support for mandatory vaccinations can be tricky as state, federal and local laws may overlap, and this is a new, largely untested area of employment law. Because vaccines are currently an area of controversy, a mandatory vaccination program may cause employers to lose good employees and critical talent. As we hear more about “The Great Resignation”, this can be a consideration, especially in industries where turnover and lack of staff is posing challenges. Special accomodations for employees refusing to vaccinate may prove to be challenging and costly.    

Those employers choosing to encourage rather than require vaccinations are educating employees and offering incentives such as paid time off, bonuses or vacation time. As an example, Rowan University in New Jersey is giving full-time students who show proof of vaccination a $500 credit to their tuition and residential students receive an additional $500 credit to their housing bill.

In any scenario, employers are left with the challenge of figuring out to what extent they may treat vaccinated workers differently from unvaccinated workers. Accommodations must be made for those who are not vaccinated for religious or medical reasons, however, these very accomodations can result in disparate treatment and feelings of exclusion at a time when we are striving to create more inclusive cultures. Explicit communication to employees that fear of COVID-19 should not be misdirected against individuals because of their identity, including national origin and race, can help to promote respect and reduce the chance of harassment or discrimination. There is still much controversy around the vaccines and risk factors, and employees continue to face personal challenges related to the pandemic. Practical information combined with acceptance and empathy go a long way in gaining buy in for your vaccine policy. 

Whether choosing to mandate or encourage vaccines, a fact-based, honest and empathetic communication and engagement strategy is essential. It must convey your commitment to maintain a safe, healthy, respectful work environment for everyone as well as explain how and why the workplace policy supports that commitment. In Part 2 of our Return-to-Work series, The HR Source will explore the details of designing and implementing a workplace vaccine policy. We encourage you to reach out to The HR Source for assistance with any of your HR needs as they relate to the subject matters we will cover in this series or any other assistance you may need. Since 1994, The HR Source has been a leader in providing human resource staffing and management solutions. Call today for a free consultation 301-459-3133.Note: As this is an ever changing landscape, employers are strongly encouraged to remain current with evolving local, state & federal mandates & guidelines regarding COVID-19 vaccines.

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