Q: We run a midsize Alaska-based company. Our management team read your Dec. 21 article about mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies. Now that vaccinations are starting, we’re considering a mandatory policy for safety reasons.
What do we do if our employees refuse to get vaccinated? Several dozen employees have stated they don’t want the vaccine, as doctors don’t know enough about the vaccine’s long-term side effects. They point out that the Food and Drug Administration sanctioned the vaccines through an emergency use authorization procedure and rushed the vaccines through.
How are other employers handling this?
A: As a management team, you’re not alone in your concerns. A survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Pew published Nov. 10, 2020, showed that 24% of people said they were not willing to get the vaccine. A Dec. 3 study from the Pew Research Center found that 21% of U.S. adults do not intend to get vaccinated and are “pretty certain” more information will not change their mind. This resistance may stem from factors including an overall lack of trust in the vaccination process and our government and from political reasons.
Here’s what you need to consider, and what many employers are choosing:
Employer reasons for requiring vaccinations:
Many employees won’t feel safe until they know their co-workers have received the vaccine. Some customers may be more willing to do business with companies that require employees to receive vaccinations.
Employers have responsibility under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to ensure a safe workplace for employees. An employer’s failure to take necessary steps to protect their workforce might result in productivity loss, compensation claims and other legal penalties and challenges.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance issued Dec. 16, 2020, gives employers the ability to establish a mandatory vaccination policy if employees remaining unvaccinated would pose a direct threat to co-workers or customers.
As one example, one of my remote-site colleagues experienced a COVID-19 threat on Jan. 8 after an unvaccinated dental hygienist who had been in my colleague’s mouth for 45 minutes on Jan. 7 showed COVID-19 symptoms.
Employers that require vaccinations as a condition of employment need to ensure their requirements are both job-related and a business necessity. Employers need to ensure their polices comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal and state anti-discrimination laws (in which religion is a protected category) and any other state or local workplace laws and regulations.
Employer reasons to not require mandatory vaccinations
Employers already offer policy exemptions to employees who fear the vaccine might exacerbate established disability or medical conditions or for whom vaccination goes against their religious beliefs. Employers may elect to respect the views of employees who express other personal, social, cultural or political concerns.
Employees who have avoided an infection by being fastidious in using personal protective equipment and following other safety measures may feel they don’t need vaccinations to remain COVID-19 free.
Employers may worry that a policy may increase their liability should an employee have an adverse reaction to a vaccination. Further, some union contracts may prevent mandatory vaccines.
Since my Dec. 21 article appeared, I’ve received calls from 18 Anchorage employers. Most of them plan to strongly encourage their employees to get vaccinated.
Some employers may provide employees educational resources to ease their fears, offer cash incentives to get vaccinations, or may offer employees paid time off to receive the vaccination.
Finally, while employers can require mandatory vaccinations, those I’ve spoken to have chosen to leave the vaccination decision up to their employees.
We’re all navigating uncharted waters.