After wrestling with the transition to remote work for more than a year, employers are mulling whether the COVID-19 vaccine’s availability means they should start planning to reopen. But with so much remaining uncertainty surrounding what office life will look like in coming months, many are mulling whether continuing to pay for office space is a worthwhile investment. Some are downsizing or moving to 100% remote work.
Owners that decide to reopen will have to weigh several factors with an eye toward developing a company vaccine policy. Questions they will need to address include whether unvaccinated individuals will be allowed to return in person and whether vaccines should be mandatory for all employees. Some may consider allowing employees who refuse to be vaccinated to work remotely, indefinitely.
Only a minority of businesses have introduced a formal vaccine policy. This presents a potentially lost opportunity since employers can play an important role in accelerating vaccine adoption. But employers have to walk a fine line. Not asking employees to be vaccinated could represent a threat to their lives, while policy mandating the COVID-19 vaccine might open the door to litigation.
One thing is certain: If you intend bringing workers back into the office, now is the time to devise a strategy. Be prepared to communicate with employees who are eager to get the vaccine as well as those who are reluctant. Plan to share relevant messages on the COVID-19 vaccine to show you care for your employee’s safety and health.
Creating your business’ COVID-19 policy
Employment experts offer six recommendations for creating a COVID-19 policy for businesses. It should be fact-based, noncoercive and compliant with employment law. Leaders should provide an example by getting the vaccine themselves, consider offering incentives and provide updated information on vaccination logistics. These points are expounded upon below.
6 facets every workplace COVID-19 policy should include:
Start with the concept of “leading with facts.” As an employer, you can provide well-researched information and connect employees to credible and resources by:
- Disseminating fact-based data regarding vaccine protection, effectiveness and cost.
- Advising staff the company's health plan will cover costs relating to vaccine administration.
- Providing notifications with the latest updates from state health departments.
- Sharing links for trustworthy pandemic-focused networks.
You may also want to emphasize that the vaccine underwent extensive testing by vaccine serologists, biologists, immunologists and other scientists before being licensed and administered by the FDA.
Vaccination is a personal decision, but having fact-based information informs that choice. Implement clear communication on where employees can be vaccinated. Since vaccine rollouts vary by location, enable local teams to submit updates on vaccine availability in their region.
Since employees may be working in different environments, use varied mediums to reach them. For example, send emails to remote workers and text messages to field workers, and hang posters for on-site workers. Postcards can also inform staff where to find updates. Some employers have launched apps and microsites with regular vaccine availability updates.
Multiple interviews and videos floating online show world leaders emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated. Similarly, you must lead by example to encourage vaccination. Don’t expect your employees to do something you won't do yourself, so be open and honest about your decision. Maintain transparency, given how divisive the decision can be in today's highly polarized climate. Leaders who share their vaccination experience via photos and videos can have a huge impact on staff.
There’s no doubt that incentives can boost compliance. This could come in the form of tangible rewards, such as cash or gift cards, or as a soft reward, such as offering an extra paid day off. You may wish to offer both individual and team-based incentives, but be sure these don't result in undue pressure on employees who are unable to get the vaccine. It’s a good idea before introducing incentives that you make sure you have the legal authority to do so to avoid the appearance of coercion.
Confirm vaccine regulatory compliance
Be mindful of issues related to the Covid-19 vaccine as they intersect with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws. Even if you believe your policy has no coercive element, that doesn't guarantee it is immune from possible legal action. It is better to invest some money on legal counsel when you are creating a policy than to deal with legal fallout later. You may also wish to consult with management, the board of directors, advisers and employees before finalizing your plan.
Additionally, employers should be aware of vaccine-related provisions as they relate to:
- Accommodation provision for disabled employees.
- Americans with Disabilities Act limits that may be implicated if an employer is involved in vaccine distribution.
- ADA restrictions on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations of employees by employers.
- Encourage, but don’t mandate
Companies are debating whether the vaccine should be mandated for employees to return to work. But vaccine apprehension is strong in some communities. Making COVID-19 vaccines a mandate could bring pushback. Employees initially opposed to vaccination may grow more comfortable with the idea as they see coworkers, peers and family members getting vaccinated safely. Keep in mind that reluctant employees may become less so after being asked on several occasions elsewhere to furnish proof of vaccination.
The road ahead is not easy. Anticipate issues, both major and minor. Regardless of whether you make vaccination optional, obligatory or simply provide information, more than likely you will still have a employees who don’t agree with your policy.
If you decide not to mandate vaccination, some employees will likely insist on continuing to work remotely. If you mandate vaccination, some employees may argue it violates their civil rights. Take a strategic approach, remain calm and train the appropriate staff on how to respond to inquiries about company’s vaccination policy. Meanwhile, continue with your efforts to ensure safety of your employees.