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COVID-19 workplace policy: Establishing vaccination policy to account for all employees

COVID-19 workplace policy: Establishing vaccination policy to account for all employees Photo

When bringing their people back to the workplace, employers have one thing in mind - how do they do it safely? Many are establishing COVID-19 workplace policy as part of their return to work efforts, which has included measures in the past such as mask-wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing. It has evolved into hybrid working schedules, hot desking, and the more controversial topic of vaccination policy

In August, a recent Littler COVID-19 Vaccine Employer Survey Report saw a significant jump in the number of employers considering some form of vaccine mandate. Less than 1% of respondents back in January 2021 said they were mandating vaccines, and just 9% were planning to in some form. 

By the August report, 22% of respondents said they firmly decided not to have a vaccine mandate, and 27% were unsure. This left half of respondents saying they either had a mandate already in place or were more strongly considering one. 

“Employers are really thinking hard about this decision,” said Devjani Mishra, a leader of Littler’s COVID-19 Task Force and its Vaccination Working Group. “It’s forcing them to ask themselves who they are as an organization; ‘should we be mandating vaccines, and is it something we are comfortable doing?’”

Employers face an obligation to keep their workforce healthy.

Many governments are implementing vaccine mandates, and businesses with over 100 employees in the United States may be required to implement a vaccination policy. But vaccination policies fall into a grey area as they are not officially a compliance standard, such as ITAR, HIPAA, or SOC 2. Instead, for the most part, they are entirely business-level decisions and entirely up to the business on whether they implement them.

Employers understand that they have an obligation to provide the highest Duty of Care to their employees, drastically affecting their COVID-19 workplace policy plans. As a result, many employers look at vaccination mandates as a critical part of their health and safety policies. Some are going as far as to say that if employees aren’t vaccinated, they could be terminated. 

This type of policy creates a challenging situation for employers, as vaccine mandates are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, a range of factors, such as the type of work, office space, company culture, and geographic location, play into the decision to input a mandate. 

However, employers want to take care of their people as best they can - both vaccinated and unvaccinated. And they are looking for a solution that will safely bring their people back to the office to reduce the risks of contracting COVID-19. 

Creating COVID-19 workplace policy that keeps everyone safe

Google, Facebook, Delta Airlines, and CVS Pharmacy are just some of the companies that have already implemented a vaccination policy in their workplace. For example, Delta has said all new hires will need to be vaccinated, while Google pushed back the reopening of their campus and extended work-from-home policy for all offices. 

Meanwhile, Facebook, one of the first companies to implement a vaccine mandate, brought up a critical point in their policy decision - not all people will be vaccinated. So when they implemented their policy, they included a process in which unvaccinated employees could return to the office and continue to work from home. 

“As our offices reopen, we will be requiring anyone coming to work at any of our U.S. campuses to be vaccinated,” Lori Goler, Facebook’s vice president of people, said in an NBC News article. “How we implement this policy will depend on local conditions and regulations. We will have a process for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and will be evaluating our approach in other regions as the situation evolves. We continue to work with experts to ensure our return to office plans prioritize everyone’s health and safety.”

According to the Littler report, 35% of respondents said workers must be fully vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19. Otherwise, they won’t be permitted to return to in-person and on-site work. This type of policy is becoming increasingly popular, as it gives both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees a chance to return to the office without worry of termination. 

It’s a way for employers to keep their employees healthy and safe and not exclude anyone or have to be forced into terminating them. However, it does create administrative challenges for every business that now has to consider how they will implement their vaccination policy.

Enforce a vaccination policy and handling exceptions

Just deciding to establish a vaccination policy is only the beginning. Managing that policy and enforcing it is where the actual battle lies. Employers have to respect privacy concerns, yet they need to execute the procedure to maintain their Duty of Care standards to all employees. 

For many businesses, that means establishing a policy for vaccinated people and those who are not or unable to. Vaccinated employees would share their proof of vaccination records and, in large part, be granted access to on-site operations. Those unable to show proof are required to submit regular COVID-19 tests to show they are not sick and complete daily health screenings. 

Dealing with exceptions to the mandate is one of the toughest challenges any employer will face with any COVID-19 workplace policy, as it can affect Duty of Care obligations to other employees. Exceptions can also impact brand reputation if an outbreak were to occur. They also can cause stress within a workplace between co-workers and those with different views on COVID-related topics. 

According to the Littler report, 75% of respondents said their largest concern was resistance from employees who are not in a protected category, but who refuse to get the vaccine or are opposed to it in general, while 68% said the impact on their company culture. 

Unfortunately, those concerns are one of the critical parts of enforcing any vaccine mandate put forward. That’s why the policy needs to be communicated clearly to the entire workforce about its implementation, how it will be managed, and the consequences of non-compliance. 

The carrot or the stick approach to COVID-19 workplace policy

In Littler’s report, 63% of respondents said they will encourage employees to be vaccinated but won’t require them to be. This is often called the carrot approach, as employers try to lead their employees to be vaccinated. However, some are taking the stick approach, which could result in the employee’s termination if they don’t get vaccinated. 

It’s a tough decision to make, and employers are trying to find solutions in their vaccination policy that will allow unvaccinated employees to work still and be part of the team. That might mean for them:

  • Working from home
  • Flexible schedule to low capacity times of the day
  • Required negative COVID tests
  • Daily screenings
  • Wear a face mask throughout the office
  • Restricted access to parts of the office

“The reality is that most U.S. workforces are not fully vaccinated, which leads to questions about whether and how to implement separate safety protocols for two different groups,” said Barry Hartstein, co-leader of Littler’s Vaccination Working Group. “Doing so, however, will require employers to develop a reliable and practical way of distinguishing between those who are vaccinated and not – without stigmatizing those who are unable to obtain the vaccine for legally protected reasons.”

However, it does mean that employers need to establish policies for both groups and then enforce those policies. Despite best efforts to lead employees to be vaccinated, implementing the ‘stick’ approach will be critical to workplace health and safety standards across the entire organization. 

Protect the entire workforce

Each business will have to come up with its own COVID-19 workplace policy that fits them. With so many variables involved, there is no one-fit approach, and it will be based on the outcomes the business wants to achieve from implementing a vaccination policy. In addition, any new policy will require additional administrative arrangements to meet the complexity of the situation. Applying your visitor management system to that approach can reduce the administrative labor necessary to implement, manage, and enforce the policy put in place. 

Protecting the workforce and providing the highest Duty of Care to all employees is a stressful job. Employers strive to maintain health and safety standards to get their people back into facilities and maintain proper working conditions. It requires flexibility, understanding, and alternative approaches that ensure employees aren’t losing their jobs but are still respecting the health of their co-workers.