More questions than answers

Employers grapple with mandating COVID-19 vaccination

Posted on Feb 26, 2021 :: Talent
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

As COVID-19 vaccines become more available, business owners may face a pressing question: Should they require their employees to get the shot?

According to the law, it’s perfectly legal for an employer to do so — as long as they account for employees covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act or those who have deeply profound religious beliefs against vaccines — but it’s not as simple as it sounds.

“If an employer decides to require workers to be vaccinated, they need to monitor compliance. They can’t let some people get away with not having it while requiring others to get it,” says Heather Macklin, a partner at Epiphany Law in Appleton.

There are several caveats business owners need to think about before mandating the vaccine, says Tony Steffek, an attorney with Davis | Kuelthau in Green Bay.

“We’ve had clients ask us, ‘Is this something we should do?’ It’s a hot-button issue and mandating the vaccine may create unexpected issues,” he says.

Macklin agrees, adding employers need to consider the trade-offs before deciding what to do. “If you look at public opinion, there’s a large segment of the population that says it won’t get the shot for a number of reasons,” she says. “If an employer requires it and the employee says no — then what?”

Education and communication are essential when talking to employees about vaccination, says Maureen Pistone, chief human resource officer for Wipfli LLP.

“Many businesses are trying to balance what’s good health-wise, such as being vaccinated, versus employees’ personal decisions,” she says. “Businesses need to talk about ways they’re keeping the space safe, such as requiring masks and social distancing, and how being vaccinated plays a role in that.”

Wipfli conducts pulse surveys every two months to track how employees feel about various topics. Pistone says a recent survey found that 55 percent said they would get vaccinated, while 27 percent haven’t decided.

“The biggest thing I hear is the importance of education, so we steer our employees to the CDC and the state health department websites where they can receive accurate information about the vaccine,” she says.

Requiring employees to get the vaccine may create hostility in the workplace, says Kurt Johnson, vice president with The H.S. Group in Green Bay.

“Right now, (the vaccine) is a very polarizing issue and if you force employees to do it, you’re going to have people who won’t comply,” he says. “We learned in the last year that we have a lot of freedoms, but if you start to mandate something, some people will be against it” and it can cause trouble.

With those thoughts in mind, Johnson says the HR pros he meets with regularly to discuss various issues have turned their focus to the vaccine and whether to require employees to get one. “Most don’t plan to. They see the health care systems and they’re not making them mandatory, so they’re following that as a guide,” he says.

While employers may decide against requiring the vaccine, they can put incentives in place to encourage their workers to get it, says Steffek, adding businesses would like their employees to be vaccinated since it will cut down on absences and health care costs. Kroger announced in February it would give every vaccinated employee an extra $100.

Steffek says employers he’s talked with are planning to heavily recommend that workers get vaccinated. Providing an incentive “such as handing out a $50 Amazon gift card to employees who receive the vaccination” is one option many are looking at, he says.

If a business has a wellness plan, it also could use that to incentivize employees, Johnson says. For example, depending on the plan’s model, the employer could give extra wellness points to workers who are vaccinated, which help lower their insurance costs.

Whether a company mandates the vaccine or not, Steffek says it’s vital that employers clearly communicate the decision to their workers. “As soon as there’s a plan, make sure to share that with employees so they aren’t wondering what’s going to happen,” he says. “If they spend a lot of time worrying about it while at work and talking about it with others, production time can be lost.”

Employers who decide to mandate their workers get the vaccine must address several issues, including checking their workers’ compensation insurance to make sure it will cover any adverse reactions that employees might experience, Macklin says.

Steffek says with all the complexities of getting employees immunized — and the accompanying political rancor — he thinks most employers may decide “it’s not worth the hassle of mandating it.”

The H.S. Group President Joey Leonard says businesses often want to be an employer of choice and if word gets out that a place is mandating the vaccine, it might drive some applicants — and some current staff — away. “The reverse could also be true. If applicants hear you require vaccines, they may find you more attractive as an employer. It all depends where their feelings are about the vaccine,” he says.

Leonard says there’s another scenario that employers may need to consider: “What if you don’t mandate vaccines, but your employees travel to a location where they are required? At that point, the worker may need to get the vaccine to continue on with their job duties.”

Pistone agrees that’s something employers need to look into and determine their plan if a worker who goes to such a site has yet to receive the vaccine. “There are a lot of questions still out there related to different scenarios, so employers need to be careful before issuing an all-or-nothing strategy,” she says.

Even if employers want their workers to be vaccinated, Johnson says due to logistics, it might not be possible for some time. “It may take a while to get enough vaccines for everyone who wants them,” he says.

He adds the best thing businesses can do is help employees find ways to get the vaccine and educate them on why the immunization is important to get. “Encouragement may be the best way to get your workers vaccinated,” Johnson says.

Leonard agrees. “You need to definitely have the company leaders — and not just those who are leaders with a title — get on board if you’re looking to launch a vaccine campaign,” he says. “If workers see people they see as leaders getting vaccinated, they might be encouraged to do so themselves. It all comes back to sending out cohesive communications and messaging.”