The majority of employers have been reticent to make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory. However, they’ve taken a variety of steps to both address barriers to access and vaccine hesitancy among the working population―including providing educational materials about the vaccine, promoting public opportunities to access the vaccine, and directly partnering with carriers and health systems, vendors, or pharmacy chains to host on-site clinics.
While approaches may in part be based on industry, workforce demographics, and organizational culture, employers can play a critical role in breaking down vaccine hesitancy through two key efforts: access and education. These efforts are essential to preparing the workforce to return the workplace.
It All Begins With Access
Vaccination strategies and options will differ based on employer size, employee distribution, and each state’s specific plans for distribution/allocation and authorized providers. Some important steps all employers can take include:
- Evaluate establishing a cross-functional vaccination team within your organization
- Determine if the vaccine will be required, encouraged, or incentivized for your workforce
- Leverage your vendor and health plan partnerships
- Plan for cost and coverage of vaccine administration
- Determine if your organization will provide/or pay for the vaccine for employees and family members not on the plan, and others including contractors
- Promote and enforce ongoing precautions against the spread of COVID-19
- Develop a communication and engagement strategy leveraging CDC and other resources
Effective Communication is Critical
Direct and ongoing education for employees is an essential part of vaccine strategy. Employers will want to communicate where, when, and how employees and their families can get the COVID-19 vaccine. It may also be helpful to develop FAQs and training materials for Human Resources Business Partners, people managers, and benefits center representatives who will likely be fielding employee questions—and serve as the face of an employer’s vaccine strategy.
Building trust and vaccine confidence is an essential part of vaccine implementation and uptake. As part of education efforts, messaging should include the fundamental components of precautions and safe practices, as well as providing proactive, factual information about vaccine safety. Most employers will want to tailor communications to their specific populations to supplement the guidance being provided by federal, state, and local authorities. At a minimum, impactful messaging can include the following details:
- The three vaccines under emergency use authorization (EUA) in the US are nearly 100% effective against preventing death and hospitalization from COVID-19,
- The technology used has been under development for over 20 years,
- Over 100,000 people from diverse backgrounds participated in clinical trials, and
- There is no out-of-pocket cost to receive the vaccine.
Incentives and Mandates Require Consideration
COVID-19 vaccines may present complex workforce compliance challenges. For example, can an employer require an employee to take the vaccine? And are there work status implications?
In general, an employer can mandate that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine. However, many employers appear to be encouraging rather than mandating. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) research shows that 88 percent of employers are either unsure about whether they will offer incentives to encourage employees to get the vaccine or are not offering or planning to offer such incentives. For those evaluating incentives, gift cards, incentive pay, extra paid time off, and emergency leave for anyone experiencing side effects from the vaccine are considerations.
Whether making decisions about mandates or incentives, there are several compliance and anti-discrimination laws that must be considered. In addition, COVID-19 concerns will span across broader Human Resources policy risks, including privacy, discrimination, and employee relations. It is critical for employers to coordinate with legal counsel to have a clear position that is communicated to employees.
A Return to the Workplace Needs Careful Planning
In the post-pandemic world, the competition for talent—including the ability to attract, engage, and retain employees—will only accelerate. An employer’s return-to-workplace approach is becoming an increasingly critical component of the employee experience. Organizations will grapple with a series of questions and challenges as they plan for a safe return to the workplace on a larger scale, including:
- How and when employees will be phased back into the workplace
- Whether new policies and procedures will be put in place regarding infection control (screening, testing, etc.)
- Which policies should be reviewed or refreshed, including flexible work arrangements and personal leave programs
- Whether training and reorientation is needed as employees come back into the workplace
- If there is a plan to require and/or track employee vaccinations
- When business travel (both domestic and global) will begin again, and whether there are new guidelines for travel and/or updated country-specific travel policies
And once employees are back in the workplace, employer considerations will turn to analyses regarding the long-term impacts of COVID on the health of their employee population—and how that may affect medical claims experience, disability trends, and absence management. They also will need to determine how to address the long-term behavioral health impacts and support needs of employees who are working both on site and at home.
As the U.S. continues efforts to curtail the pandemic and move closer to a more normal state, we are still gathering evidence and discovering new information regarding COVID-19. Surveys show employers may play a valuable role for employees as leaders and role models, providing resources and other incentives to support a safe return to workplace strategy.