Can Employers Help Vaccinations Reach a Tipping Point?


With vaccinations having been fully rolled out, numbers are reaching a point in the United States where in person gatherings may soon be back on the cards and plans to safely return employees to work are becoming a reality.

But there is a key hurdle into returning to normal or, for that matter, defining our new normal. Despite the scientific evidence surrounding the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccinations, there remains a significant portion of the population that is hesitant to get it or simply refuses. As time has gone on, any sort of preventative action to stop the spread of this virus has become a political statement, whether it’s wearing a mask, socially distancing or getting your shot and vaccination card.

To reach a point of something resembling herd immunity, it’s estimated that around three quarters of the population must be inoculated. At present, roughly 46% of the country has had at least their first dose, while 35% has been fully vaccinated. The ideal number remains a long way off and at this stage, it has less to do with the rollout or availability of vaccines than people’s willingness.

At the beginning of last month, NPR released a poll showing that 1-in-4 Americans would outright refuse a COVID vaccine if offered and another 5% were undecided. That is a big enough percentage to put the possibility of herd immunity in jeopardy.

The reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated are often based in misinformation that spreads via social media regarding reactions to the vaccine and whether or not it’s safe. Some in minority communities are understandably untrusting of a medical and scientific community that has used racist policies and dangerous clinical experiments on their communities to achieve their aims.

READ: Vaccines Bring Hope Without Clarity for the Future of the Workplace 

How then can this lack of trust be overcome and the necessary threshold of vaccinated Americans reached to slow the circulation of the virus to a point that it can be controlled?

Employers Part

There is a significant portion of the vaccine hesitant population that are just that, hesitant, meaning they aren’t entirely closed off to it, they just feel a bit of unease. Further education on the vaccine can help these people overcome their unease.

But for many, trust in government agencies is low. Their employers have, in many cases, earned their trust through the actions they’ve taken to keep people safe over the last year. Relationships between employers and employees are, in many cases, stronger than ever and there is now a line of thinking that this can be leveraged to help boost vaccination numbers.

While employers cannot and would not want to force people to get shots, there are ways to encourage vaccination without it becoming mandatory or even getting into workplace policies that could infringe on state laws or personal rights.

The National Safety Council has released its Safe Actions for Employer Returns (SAFER) guidelines in which it promotes the idea of employers providing employees with all the education, resources and support they need to get vaccinated. Here are some highlights from them:

  • PTO for vaccination and recovery- providing paid time off for employees to get vaccinated as well to recover from any side effects should they experience them
  • On site vaccine clinics- coordinate with public health agencies to see if this is possible. If so, providing this as a benefit could help bridge the trust gap some employees have
  • Testimony- encourage peer-to-peer communication regarding the vaccine. It’s important people hear what others went through when they got the vaccine as it may help ease concerns.
  • Scheduling and transportation- if employees need support in getting to vaccination appointments or finding a place convenient for them to get it, help them achieve this. Eliminating this hurdle could be all they need to feel ready

Vaccine hesitancy doesn’t necessarily make someone unreasonable. It’s easy to get sucked into misinformation on the internet and their viewpoints should be heard with empathy while also responded to with facts. At the end of the day, the vaccine is better than the alternative of contracting the actual virus. Some people who have already had it may feel they don’t need it, but research shows vaccines are still helpful in preventing those people from getting the virus again.

The Return to Work

Returning people to the office is something that is going to be complex enough from a safety point of view, but tie into it employee perception and what their desires are for how the workplace will function going forward and it gets to be more complicated.

In the end, remote work isn’t fully going away. The vast majorities of companies we’ve spoken to are keeping remote work policies in place for the most part, with many opting for some type of hybrid approach. And that’s smart, given that a large percentage of the workforce has indicated its willingness to leave their job if forced to return to office spaces full time.

READ: COVID Creates Trust Issue in Physical Workplaces

While it’s important to remain flexible and engage employees around their thoughts on a return to work process as well keeping up on federal guidelines, the question many are asking is whether or not to require vaccines to return to work.

The first thing to consider is state laws and guidelines. Every state has been impacted differently by the pandemic and each has different regulations around a return to normal life. Think about how this impacts your return to the workplace and follow local guidelines.

With that said, employers can look at the situation and make a judgment call. If it is essential that someone be in a co-located space but they simply refuse to be vaccinated, that could be grounds for dismissal the same way other behaviors of choice influence employment. For public sector employers, this may not be the case, but for those in the private sector and in particular at-will employers, requiring employees to get vaccinated for a return to work is within their rights, assuming they aren’t violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Those who have a legitimate medical exemption are still protected under the law.

That said, vaccine mandates are tricky. If it is a required task, that means employers have to compensate employees for the task of getting it, covering any time spent waiting in lines as well as the gas it takes to get there and the hospitalization cost should it arise.

Additionally, there are concerns over employers gaining access to private medical information during vaccine pre-screening processes. For this reason, one lawyer told Forbes that “allow employees to receive the vaccine from whatever provider they wish with the employer covering any associated costs. In fact, the EEOC went so far as to suggest that the employer should not have any role in the administration of the vaccine (such as contracting with a clinic to administer the vaccinations at the worksite, etc.).”

It’s more likely we see employers simply encourage vaccines, providing support and an opportunity to receive them for employees. Just doing this could help swing the vaccinated numbers up to a threshold where industries that have been hard hit by the pandemic can begin to come back online and life return to something resembling normal. For employees, it’s important to hear from leaders and the organization as a whole.

“Employees trust medical professionals, faith leaders and their employers far more than they trust politicians or ‘big pharma,’ ” said A. Kevin Troutman, a member of Fisher Phillips’ COVID-19 task force in an interview with SHRM. “Hearing why their employer thinks [vaccination is] important for the business is critical to helping employees understand why they should get a vaccine.”

Photo Courtesy of Stock Photo Secrets 

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