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How should employers address vaccine refusals?

Posted by Celene Robert

February 2, 2022

Mandating employees' to get the coronavirus vaccine can help reduce workplace disruptions and lessen the incidence of illness related with COVID-19. Many employers view them as vital to ensure on-premises customers and staff that the company is safe. However, the case for mandating vaccines is much less compelling for employers with strictly remote workers with no in-person contact with customers.

Attorney Brett Coburn, in an interview with the Society for Human Resource Management, said that employers with mandatory vaccination policies will have better legal protection if they terminate employees for noncompliance or force such employees to work remotely, instead of punitive actions involving withholding pay or promotions. Employers that wish to impose vaccine mandates must respect medical and religious exemptions, among other things, he said.

Complicating the matter is that the Supreme Court in early January blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for businesses with at least 100 workers – but private companies can still mandate it on their own terms. 

If a significant number of employees refuse to comply, the employer may have to make a difficult choice of either adhering to the mandate and terminating the employees or deviating from the mandate for certain employees.

Five strategies to address vaccine refusal

Employers may wish to consider implementing vaccination mandates only for higher-risk employees, such as those who travel frequently for business. Companies with a lower risk of onsite transmission can also mandate vaccination to make their employees’ and customers’ feel safe. There are five steps that employers can take in the event employees refuse to get vaccinated. 

  1. Ask them to work remotely or to take a leave of absence

If an employee who doesn’t want to be vaccinated poses a direct threat to the workplace, the employer might take a page from Google’s playbook and ask the employee to work remotely, take a leave of absence or send them on unpaid leave. A memo circulated by Google informed employees that those who haven’t complied with the vaccination requirement by January 18 would be sent on paid leave for 30 days. After that, the company will put them on unpaid personal leave for up to six months, followed by termination.

  1. Mandate regular testing and take other precautions

Some employers are requiring unvaccinated employees to have frequent testing and to take other safety precautions to decrease the chance of COVID-19 entering the workplace. Those with positive tests should not be allowed to come to work and have a PCR test for confirmation. Many state and local rules are giving employers an option to ask employees to show vaccination proof or submit weekly COVID-19 testing reports, wear masks and keep physically distant from other workers and visitors.

  1. Provide sufficient time to get vaccinated

Any policy mandating vaccines in the workplace should be in writing and distributed to employees to provide enough time to get vaccinated. As one Google spokesperson said, “our vaccination requirements are one of the most important ways we can keep our workforce safe and keep our services running.”

  1. Incentivize employees

Many employers are encouraging their employees to get vaccinated based on the premise it makes their workplace safer and protects employees, customers and their families. Employers can encourage employees to get vaccinated by: 

  • Developing vaccine education campaigns to help employees understand how the vaccine will make their workplace safer. Ensure company leaders get vaccinated first.
  • Provide on-site vaccines, or work with local public health authorities to provide them.
  • Cover any costs related to the vaccine, including travel.
  • Provide incentives to employees who get vaccinated.
  • Give paid time off to vaccinated employees to recover from possible side effects.
  1. Consider terminating unvaccinated employees

Some organizations have opted to fire employees who don't comply with a vaccine mandate unless they have a medical or religious objection. Experts say employers who terminate their employees for violating mandatory vaccination policies are legally safer than those who impose lesser punishments like withholding pay, raises or promotion.


Celene Robert
Celene Robert

Celene heads up the marketing at Escalon. Passionate about helping companies grow their business, she spends her days finding new ways to bring essential business services to startups, SMBs, and growth-minded companies. Based in the PNW, she’s the proud owner of 8 pairs of Birkenstocks and a sassy, cuddly cat.

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