white and green syringe injecting a model resembling the coronavirus on a white background
PHOTO: Ivan Diaz on Unsplash

The pace of COVID vaccinations continues to pick up momentum in 2021. As of mid-April, authorities report 825 million people have received vaccinations, with 192 million people in the U.S. alone getting at least their first dose.

As that number grows, discussion has turned to re-opening shuttered parts of the economy and the potential requirement to show proof of vaccination, a so-called “vaccination passport,” prior to entering a country.

At work, employers are having active discussions about their own vaccination policy for employees returning to in-person office work. Given that vaccinations are voluntary, can companies mandate that employees and customers be vaccinated in order to employ them or do business with them?

Although state and city laws vary, companies have the right to require that all employees get vaccinated before they return to work on their premises, although states could enact legislation barring discrimination based on vaccination status. 

But, in an added twist, 40% of employees do not plan to get vaccinated, according to a recent report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and 28% would rather lose their job than take the vaccination. Although 60% of companies said they will not require vaccinations, many may strongly encourage or provide employee incentives to get the shot. So what's a company to do? 

How Do You Prove Vaccination?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides everyone who is vaccinated with a paper card that can be used to show vaccination status. Others in private industry are working on vaccination apps that could be used at airports, concerts and sporting events. 

New York issued digital vaccine passports using IBM's Excelsior Pass app, which displays a personalized QR code verifying vaccination status, and recently tested the app at a Brooklyn Nets basketball game and a New York Rangers hockey game. On the other hand, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted legislation that prohibits any government entity from issuing vaccination passports and also prohibits businesses from requiring their customers to have them. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed similar legislation recently, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the federal government will not be issuing any vaccine passport.

Chantell Sell Reagan, Pharm.D., director and national pharmacy practice clinical leader at Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory, broking and solutions company, spoke with Reworked about whether employers will be likely to use CDC cards or other trackers. “Similar to NY state’s Excelsior Pass, there are other examples used by some airlines in limited use including CommonPass and Travel Pass,” Reagan said.

“Other tech and health care companies are separately working on open, voluntary trackers including Vaccine Credential Initiative, and WHO’s Smart Vaccination Certificate. Employers should be aware that some trackers are simply asking for employees to self-report vaccination, or upload photos of the CDC cards.”

Large consumer events such as Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronic dance music festival set for Las Vegas in May, has already submitted plans to have attendees show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, along with mask-wearing and COVID-19 detection dogs, but no social distancing. Event organizers have not said what they consider to be proof of vaccination, but it is speculated that they will accept the CDC cards as proof. The event is already sold out and is expected to draw as many as 200,000 people over a three-day period.

Related Article: Companies Grapple With the Return to Office Decision

Should Vaccinations Be Required or Just Encouraged?

According to the results of West Monroe’s latest Quarterly Executive poll in which they surveyed 150 C-Suite executives at companies with $250 million or more in revenue, 51% are leaning towards requiring employees to be vaccinated in order to return to work. 66% are planning on tracking employees’ vaccinations and 25% of that group say they will use the employee vaccination percentage rate to determine when to return to on-site work.

On the other hand, a survey by Willis Towers Watson indicated that only 10% of employers will make vaccination mandatory for employment, however 23% are planning on or considering requiring employees to get vaccinated in order to return to the worksite. Additionally, many are taking measures to ensure that employees have ample opportunities to get vaccinated in order to bring employees back to work sooner. Companies such as ServiceNow are helping organizations across healthcare, government, education and the private sector to provide widespread vaccinations through the use of its Now Platform and Vaccine Administration Management solution.

84% of those polled believe that immunization of the population will help reactivate the economy, and 80% said it will enable them to move to the new normal in the workplace, a phrase likely referring to the hybrid workplace. Further, 55% expect their workforces to be vaccinated by the end of 2021.

“Employers understand that by taking an active part in supporting the vaccination of employees, they can play a crucial role in ending the pandemic,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., population health leader at Willis Towers Watson. “A common strategy for employers is to make vaccines an easy choice for employees by first helping convince them to get the vaccine and then making it easy for them to do so.”

Over a third of employers polled have established policies and procedures that make it easier for employees to become vaccinated, and another 50% are thinking about doing so. Nearly a quarter (23%) of employers are obtaining vaccines themselves or they are providing access to vaccines through a third party, and 55% are planning on or considering doing so. One in five (20%) are offering incentives for vaccination, including providing extra leave or vacation time to get vaccinated, while 10% are offering cash or other financial incentives.

Related Article: Why Offering Cash to Employees to Get Vaccinated Is a Problem

Workplace Vaccination Should Provide for Exemptions

The CDC has a Workplace Vaccination Program page with information for employers that provide access to vaccinations. They encourage business leaders to be “vaccine champions,” and encourage and educate employees about vaccination as well as allow them to get vaccinated during work hours or take paid leave to get vaccinated. 

The CDC specifies that if an employer requires employees to provide proof from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider that they have been vaccinated, the employer cannot require the employee to provide any medical information as part of the proof. Additionally, the CDC said the same exemptions that apply to workers who are required to take the flu shot are also likely to apply to the COVID-19 vaccine, meaning employees are allowed to claim medical and religious exemptions. 

“Any vaccination policy must include a procedure for employees to request an exemption," said Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, J.D., legal editor at XpertHR. "Vaccination policies should clearly explain whether vaccines are required or encouraged. A vaccination policy should specify who is covered under the policy and include a process for submitting requests for exemptions/reasonable accommodations based on a disability or a sincerely held religious belief. A reasonable accommodation may be in the form of remote work or a transfer to an isolated part of the workplace.”

Elisabeth Duncan, director of human resources at Evive, a digital engagement and communication technology company, said as vaccinations ramp up, employers must assure employees there are detailed cleaning plans and safe in-office protocols. “Employers must provide information about COVID-19 vaccinations, immunization benefits, and answers to common questions and concerns," she said. "Most of all, they need to support employee’s health and well-being to create a thriving work environment that’s productive, motivated and engaged.”

What Exactly Is in a Vaccination Policy?

A company vaccination policy will typically state the purpose, scope and procedures for employee vaccination and will define what the result will be if an employee refuses to get a vaccination, as well as the acceptable medical and religious exemptions. SHRM provides a template for the creation of such a vaccination policy, as well as medical and religious exemption forms.

The language used in a vaccination policy should be straightforward: The purpose defines the reasons for the policy, the scope defines who and what the policy covers, and the procedures define how the policy will be implemented. 

When deciding what to include in a vaccination policy, companies should consult the CDC's guidelines as well as the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other applicable laws. It details specifically what can and cannot be asked by the employer without triggering ADA protections, as well as additional details about each of the exemptions that must be respected by the employer. Additionally, companies must determine if the Occupational Safety and Health Act or the National Labor Relations Act can be applied to their vaccination policy. In short, this is a good time to talk to a labor lawyer.

Whether a vaccination policy states that vaccination is a requirement or is just strongly encouraged, should be based on the impact on both customer and employee health and safety along with public perception. The EEOC says employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccination for employees to avoid 'a direct threat to health in the workplace,' Reagan said. But she sounded a further note of caution.

"Employers seeking to require vaccination should discuss with their counsel,” she said. “Employers should avoid prematurely requiring the vaccine, which could cause more people to declare their opposition, and could paradoxically decrease how many people are ultimately vaccinated.”

The decision about whether to institute a vaccination policy will not come easily and without controversy or repercussions. Companies need to decide if having unvaccinated employees in their midst constitutes a health risk for customers and other employees, and take measures to minimize those risks. A vaccination policy is one step to consider.