COVID Vaccine in the Workplace

03.04.21Baylee Olsen

COVID Vaccine in the Workplace

As more and more COVID-19 vaccines become available, are you or your employees trying to determine what this means for your workplace? Can you require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine? Should you? 

In December of 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace Guidance to state, employers may require employees to get vaccinated as an employer is allowed to have a workplace policy that includes a “requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in a workplace.” Additionally, the EEOC stated the vaccination is not considered a ‘medical examination’ under the American with Disability Act (ADA). As of right now, California has taken the same stance on this issue.

Requiring Vaccines Among Employees

If an employer requires the vaccination, there must be a clear procedure for employees to request an exemption that could be considered a reasonable accommodation on the basis of several factors. These exemptions include a disability under the ADA, a sincerely held religious belief or a medical condition that would prevent the employee from being safely vaccinated. Each request will need to be evaluated on a case-by-by case basis since there are many different circumstances to be considered. If the employer receives such a request, they must engage in a thorough interactive process with the employee. This process should be documented to include all conversations and steps taken. The employer will need to determine what they will do next if the employee follows through with not getting the vaccination or if a reasonable accommodation can not be made.

Some things to consider if you will be requiring the COVID-19 vaccination in your workplace:

  • Policy. Ensure you have a strong written Vaccination Policy to include who is covered by the policy and a procedure for requesting an exemption.
  • Statement. Include a thorough statement about why you are mandating the vaccination for your workplace. Is it to protect other employees? To protect clients? To comply with public health guidance? If you are in healthcare, childcare, etc. you can also include the need to protect patients or children.
  • Remote. Do you have employees working remotely with no contact with anyone else? If so, your policy will probably not make sense for those employees.
  • Proof. What do employees need to submit to show proof of vaccination? They should not be required to submit medical or genetic information. How will this information be protected to ensure employees privacy rights?
  • Vaccine Availability. How will you handle employees who are not able to get a vaccination due to local distribution plans or the availability of the vaccine? How long will the employee have to get the vaccine once they are eligible?
  • Refusal. What will you do if an employee does not have a valid exemption but will not get vaccinated? Will you exclude them from the workplace? Require them to work from home or go on a leave of absence? Discipline or terminate them? How will you ensure you handle this process, consistently and fairly? What if several employees refuse to get vaccinated? This should be considered carefully since mass terminations may not be practical or legally advisable.
Encouraging Vaccines Among Employees

The EEOC recommends employers consider simply encouraging employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine unless there is a strong business reason for requiring it. Due to the various pitfalls, many employers have decided to take the approach recommended by the EEOC and highly encourage employees to get vaccinated.

To make it easier for employees to comply when it is not mandated, employers can implement the following:

  • Offer free vaccinations at their workplaces. Contact your local health department for guidance. Additional considerations for hosting a vaccination clinic can be found on the CDC’s Resources for Hosting a Vaccination Clinic website. 
  • Adequately communicate the vaccinations to employees so they are aware when the clinic is occurring and the importance of getting one.
  • It would be helpful to educate employees on the steps taken to ensure the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. More information can be found here.
  • Ensure employees are educated on the possible side effects of the vaccination and what they should do if they have side effects.
  • If you will not have an onsite clinic, provide employees with information on locations offering COVID-19 vaccinations in the community.
  • Do you want to offer an incentive such as a small gift card or another reward? How will you reward employees who are exempt from getting the vaccine? Remember any incentives must meet both HIPAA and IRS requirements for compliant wellness programs.
Allergic Reaction Complications

A common question arises of employer liability if the employee has an adverse reaction to the vaccine whether they receive it at the workplace or in the community. Severe reactions are possible but are very rare. For an onsite clinic, employers should be working with a reputable healthcare provider to administer the vaccination and they will be able to assist with any issues. 

If the vaccine is mandated, any severe reactions may be covered by the workers compensation policy and the company should check with their carrier. If the vaccination was not mandated but merely encouraged, severe reactions will probably not be covered by workers compensation. To have a legal claim, the employee would need to show negligence on the part of the employer. If the employer is using a reputable third-party provider and the vaccine is FDA approved, a claim of negligence will be hard to prove.

How SDHRC Can Help

This issue is very complex and it is important to handle all vaccination requirements in the workplace with a well-educated perspective on the topic! Whether or not you require the COVID vaccine among employees is a situation unique to your specific workplace. SDHR Consulting can help you navigate through the pitfalls to ensure a successful vaccination program for your company that includes not only the COVID vaccine but other vaccines as well. Our HR experts take the stress off of your shoulders as we provide professional insight and guidance when it comes to the COVID vaccine in the workplace.

About the Author

Traci Hagan, “Treasure Trove”

Traci is an HR Consultant who has been with SDHRC for over 2 years but has over 32 years of experience in employee relations, conflict resolution benefits administration, training and development, workers’ comp and staffing! Traci is also a Professor who enjoys traveling and spending time with her 16-year-old “puppy”.