As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out across the country, employers are struggling to create a strategic action plan for their workplace. There are many questions that need answering in order to keep everyone feeling safe. At the top of the list of considerations is whether to require or encourage employees to get a vaccine.
In February, 43% of employers indicated they have not written off mandating vaccinations, and 48% decided they would not make it a requirement, according to the Littler COVID-19 Vaccine Employer Survey Report. Ninety percent decided to provide information for vaccination, and 40% said they’d offer services at their facility.
Rolling out vaccines is something that has been done for decades in the United States. Indeed, most institutions and schools require students to be vaccinated and have protocols for those who choose to opt out. To help address some of the questions arising from this important issue, here are some tips for companies to be successful in handling employees returning to the workplace amid the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
Address Mental Health Concerns
Due to social isolation, economic challenges, and the stress of balancing work and home life while working remotely, many employees are experiencing an increase in anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that mental health in the U.S. is deteriorating, and many people are not getting the care they need.
Nearly 34% of those surveyed in the U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Household Pulse Survey reported symptoms of anxiety and depression from Feb. 3-15, 2021. Compare that to the NCHS National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) Early Release Program’s January-June 2019 NHIS report. During January-June 2019, 11.0% of adults aged 18 or above had symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder. Taking this over 300% jump into consideration is a must for employers when discussing and implementing a COVID-19 vaccine action plan.
Knowing the stress their employees have experienced in the past year, employers must address their employee’s concerns over the vaccine and provide them with adequate mental health support during these ever-changing times. Opening the discussion to include the mental health impact surrounding the vaccine allows employees to feel safe and to trust that their employer cares for them and respects their decisions. For additional support, employers may consider providing mental health programs by partnering with local clinicians and counselors.
Know Your Legal Limits
When dealing with an action plan around something as unprecedented as the COVID-19 pandemic, employers should always consult their legal counsel to validate what they can or cannot do when implementing a plan for vaccination requirements. It is crucial that both employers and employees understand their legal rights. Your counsel should have the most accurate information and understand the laws of the jurisdictions that apply to your operations.
Employers also can use the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) as resources for guidance on requiring vaccines in the workplace, although they make no specific reference to COVID-19 vaccines.
The EEOC, which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), has revised it guidance to take COVID-19 into consideration. Employees may be entitled to exemption from a mandatory vaccination based on disabilities that prevent them from doing so, barring significant difficulty or expense. Similarly, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once an employer receives notice that an employee’s religious belief, practice, or observance prevents taking a vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship.
OSHA’s guidance does not mandate employees to take the vaccines, but an employer may do so. In this case, “an employee who refuses vaccination because of a reasonable belief that he or she has a medical condition that creates a real danger of serious illness or death (such as serious reaction to the vaccine) may be protected under Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.”
Have a Communications Plan in Place
Establishing a strong system of communications that assists employees in navigating the different options and changes with COVID-19 is crucial for maintaining employer-employee trust. Employers need to ensure they have a strategic, timely, and honest communications plan in place so employees feel confident in their company’s stance and action plan regarding vaccines. With a plan in place, employees will feel comfortable to openly discuss the vaccine and their feelings toward it, allowing employers to prepare a more accurate action plan for the vaccine rollout.
Understand Social Interaction Limitations
Coming back to the office means an increase in social interaction for most employees. Employers should gauge how comfortable their employees are with being around people who may or may not be vaccinated. Knowing how employees feel will enable a smoother transition back to the office as employers will be able to make the necessary preparations to coincide with their workers’ comfort levels.
Companies also must take into consideration client interactions. To keep a positive relationship with clients, companies should be prepared for varying comfort levels when interacting with people face to face. Some may prefer to keep things virtual or over the phone for the time being.
Keep Up on the Latest Developments
Employers can help ease the uncertainty around the vaccine and stop the spread of misinformation by staying on top of the most current COVID-19 developments and providing accurate information from established and reputable sources. They should be aware of state and local guidelines for the vaccine rollout, such as where employees can get the vaccine, what demographics are included, and which health care providers are covering the costs. Employers also should consult regularly with local health care officials and keep open communication with local authorities to stay up to date on this information for their employees.
In addition to state and local government departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) provide resources and guidance for workplaces and businesses.
Update Your Workplace Health Kit
As companies prepare to bring employees back in office, it is crucial that cleaning supplies and health kits are dispersed and updated throughout the workplace. Hygiene has become a focal point in workplace planning, and employees everywhere have become hyperaware of health risks. Employers should ensure all workstations have disinfectant and cleaning supplies such as hand sanitizer and tissues, while public spaces such as break rooms and restrooms are equipped with effective cleaning supplies.
Employers also should have a cleaning service that comes into the office frequently for deep cleaning and sanitation. By implementing the necessary hygiene and cleaning practices, employees will feel safe to return to the workplace and will have trust in their employers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of considerations regarding return-to-office guidance and how employers can handle the vaccine rollout. There are myriad decisions to consider and aligning with the best advocates is the key to successfully navigating the changing landscape. Your legal counsel, insurance advisor, and government organizations will be key players in a complicated mix for the best outcomes in taking care of your employees.
Combined, these efforts allow employers to further build trust with their employees to ensure a safe transition back into the office. Since the country has experienced tremendous change and employees have dealt with many obstacles this past year, employers must handle this transition period with caring and transparent communication.
For more information or further discussion, please contact your IOA employee benefits consultant today.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained here is intended to be general and advisory in nature. It is not to be considered legal advice of any kind. © 2021 Insurance Office of America