Can employers require COVID vaccines? Should they?
With more COVID-19 vaccines being administered every day, we finally can prepare for a post-pandemic workplace. Before we get there, though, employers need to consider how they’ll respond to the vaccine itself. Will they require workers to be vaccinated before returning to work? Will they make accommodations for those unwilling to get the shots? Will their benefit plans cover the vaccine cost?
Even though widespread availability of the vaccines is still months away, now is the time for firms to ask such questions. Tech firms, especially, should address these issues because, as the nation’s go-to pioneers of workplace culture, they’ll likely be expected to set the example rather than learn from others. Our experience working with organizations like TechPoint, Emplify and Springbuk has proven tech firms tend to be early adopters in all areas of progress, so we are confident they’ll willingly lead the way again.
A two-part question
The Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use authorizations have allowed the vaccine to be administered to some top-priority recipients and to healthcare workers in middle of December, and broader distribution is expected to start in early 2021. Recent EEOC guidance confirmed that employers can require COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment, subject to certain exemptions for disability or religious reasons. Meanwhile, the Indiana state government currently permits vaccination requirements.
Of course, whether employers are allowed to require their employees to get vaccines is only half of the question. The other half is whether they should require vaccines, and how they will accommodate employees who might resist vaccination. In a recent Gallup poll, 40% of Americans said they are hesitant to get the vaccine, mostly due to the speed of the rollout, and some might defer due to medical or religious reasons.
Cost won’t be a barrier
In the past, some employers have decided that, rather than requiring vaccines, they would instead encourage and facilitate vaccinations through such measures as communication campaigns and on-site clinics. The good news is that regardless of your company’s policy, employee cost should not be a barrier to vaccinations. The federal CARES Act requires employer-sponsored health plans to cover the vaccine with no cost to the employee and, while that could mean an additional cost to the employer, the vaccine is not expected to be expensive (about $40 to $50 for the two-dose process, based on recent projections), and the expense likely will be offset by savings due to lower infection rates.
With all of this in mind, what should an employer do?
- The employer should consider carefully whether to mandate vaccines as a condition of employment. This decision should be made based on factors such as company culture (would a mandate run counter to your normal operational style, for example, or do you have an all-in-this-together culture that would make a mandate seem logical?) and working conditions (do employees mostly work remotely, do they meet with outside contacts regularly, etc.).
- If a firm does require vaccinations, it must be prepared with policies and procedures to address employees who refuse vaccinations based on governmentally approved exceptions.
- Regardless of whether they mandate vaccinations, employers should facilitate vaccinations through employee education and communication, by giving employees the flexibility to get shots during working hours, and by providing information about where shots are available.
- The employer should confirm and explain to employees how their health benefits will cover vaccination costs.
- The employer should communicate its decisions, offerings, coverage and other details to employees clearly and repeatedly and with full consideration of employees’ possible concerns or reluctance. The key message throughout the process must be that employee health and well-being is the top priority.
Carefully choose, communicate and execute your path for the COVID-19 vaccine and you can ensure that the arrival of a vaccine truly helps to bring to a close the frustrations of 2020. Fail to take those steps and you just might find that remnants of the COVID nightmare haunt you well into 2021.
By Dr. Ryan Bojrab, DPT, is the Senior Director of Health Strategy, First Person Advisors, helping organizations make data-driven decisions around their benefits and health and well-being strategies.