With Jared Polis’ recent announcement that all adult Coloradoans will be eligible for vaccines starting in early April, employees and employers are starting to think about how vaccinations will factor into the workplace. With Covid restrictions in Colorado starting to ease up, many employers are building their plan to safely increase their in-office capacity. As employers work towards developing their return-to-office plan, we’ve captured the top five things you should consider about Covid-19 vaccinations in your planning process:
1. Can employers require/mandate the Covid-19 vaccine?
Yes, employers can mandate that employees get vaccinated prior to returning to the office based on informal guidance from the EEOC. However, deciding whether to mandate the vaccine is complex. There are multiple elements to consider, including:
a. What is the likelihood of employees being exposed to Covid-19?
Does the workplace have a high risk of exposure? Such as regularly being exposed to infected individuals, working in close contact with others or being in a contained space for more than 15 minutes with others.
Workplaces where employees encounter several risks of exposure are more likely to consider requiring the vaccination as a way to protect their employee’s safety. Whereas workplaces where employees can continue to work from home, or in the office with minimal exposure, may not find it necessary to consider a mandate.
b. In what situations are employees exempt from complying with a vaccine mandate?
Individuals can qualify for a medical exemption under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or a religious exemption under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
c. What happens in situations where employees refuse the vaccine?
It’s important to consider that not all employees want to or are able to get vaccinated. The first step an employer should take is to evaluate if the employee may qualify for an exemption (see B above). Vaccines are controversial and some employees may refuse to get it even if they don’t qualify for an exemption.
Employers should consider the possibility of losing employees as a result of the mandate. Employees may choose to resign or the employer may be forced to terminate employment in order to uphold the mandate. (Note: if the employee qualifies for an exemption, then the organization could be open to a wrongful termination lawsuit if dismissing such an employee.)
2. How can employers encourage the vaccine without requiring it?
There isn’t yet official guidance from the EEOC regarding parameters of vaccine incentives. However, we’ve captured several ideas below adapted from the CDC Workplace Vaccination Program:
- Educate your employees by sharing information about the importance of the vaccine and where to get it
- Be flexible and make it as easy as possible to allow employees opportunities to get the vaccine during the workday
- Allow employees to take a sick day if they have any symptoms after getting the vaccine
- If there is a fee for the vaccine, consider reimbursing the cost for the employee and their family members
- If the vaccine is free, consider offering a small incentive such as a gift card, free lunch, an extra paid sick/vacation day, etc.
- Address any other specific barriers within your organization
It’s important to encourage employees in a supportive and equitable way knowing that some employees may be hesitant to get the vaccine.
3. How can employers prepare a workplace vaccination plan?
a. Solicit your employees’ feedback about Covid-19 vaccinations and their comfort returning to the workplace.
We strongly encourage employers to partner with their employees to learn more about their preferences. You can do this by conducting an anonymous survey or through small virtual meetings to get a sense of employee perspectives before making final decisions. (NOTE: If meeting in-person, make sure to avoid asking about sensitive/medical information – this information is better collected anonymously).
We suggest asking your employees about the following:
- Their desire to get the Covid-19 vaccine
- For employees on the fence about getting the vaccine, gather more information about why
- What would help make it easier for employees to get the vaccine
- Is the employee eligible for medical or religious exemption
- Are employees comfortable returning to the office after being vaccinated
- If not, what safety or workplace precautions would help them feel comfortable returning to the office
b. What should employers include in their workplace vaccination plan?
- Take the information you learn from employees into account. Use this as an opportunity to address what’s important to your employees so that your plan has a greater likelihood of success.
- Outline the organization’s Covid-19 vaccine policies and procedures.
- Include FAQs to address the possible questions that HR or managers may receive from employees.
- Ensure your plan is designed with flexibility in mind as workplace precautions and requirements around Covid-19 continue to evolve as the vaccine is rolled out
4. What information should employers communicate about their vaccination plan?
- First, socialize your plan with managers to make sure they have a thorough understanding and are comfortable explaining the plan to employees.
- Create a broad communication plan that outlines all the ways the policy will be shared with employees.
- Consider using multiple communication channels to communicate your message, such as: email, Intranet, virtual FAQ sessions, one-on-one conversations, and other workplace communication platforms.
- Include information about new or continued workplace safety precautions that are or will be in place as more employees return to working onsite.
5. For employers operating partially or fully remote this past year, what else should you plan for as it relates to employees returning to the office?
For employees who have been working remotely this past year, coming back into the office will be a big change and will invoke a wide variety of emotions (from excitement to fear). Allow employees time to adjust to the new in-office expectations with flexible schedules or a phased return plan. Consider these questions:
- What do employees need to feel safe to come back to work?
- What safety precautions do you need to implement or continue?
- What are your future expectations around employees working in the office?
- Have you asked your employees about their desired mix of in-office vs. remote schedule?
- What kind of culture do you want to create & how does face time in the office align with it?
- What could a transition period look like to start to bring employees back?
- How do you maximize time in the office vs. time working from home?
Be prepared to answer questions like, “why do I need to return to the office, I’ve been working productively from home for the past year?” As you enter into your new normal, consider that you may not be returning to the same work environment that existed pre-pandemic. Build a value proposition that incents employees to return to the office by maximizing face time in the office with activities best suited for collaboration, problem solving or decision making.
As we’ve learned over this past year, business practices need to continuously adapt during these unprecedented times. Organizations should stay fluid and constantly evaluate the effectiveness and buy-in of their Covid-19 vaccination and workplace safety policies. Your employees are the backbone of your business and they have options (now more than ever!) to find employment based on their terms. Employers should partner closely with employees to co-create their return to office plan and policies to ensure buy-in and support. If something isn’t working, be quick to make changes and communicate them back to employees.
Stay informed! Here is a list of important sources to closely monitor:
- Check the CDC weekly for updated information – information for employers can be found here.
- Seek out guidance from an HR professional and/or Employment Law Attorney as needed.
- Visit your county’s website for information on vaccine availability and workplace precautions.
- Colorado vaccine information and eligibility can be found here.