As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, many employers are considering their role in facilitating widespread immunization and keeping their employees, customers and communities safe – and helping restore Hawai‘i’s economy.
Every employer wants a post-Covid-19 era in which employees can again safely work together at a common workplace. In fact, having a fully vaccinated workforce may be the only way some companies survive. But employers that implement mandatory vaccine policies will face significant practical and legal concerns.
Here are factors to consider:
Can or should employers require employees to receive the vaccine?
Recent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clarifies that employers can require that employees get vaccinated, subject to exceptions such as a disability or religious exemption.
However, for many employers, a mandatory vaccine policy may be more trouble than it’s worth. Each employer needs to consider its particular workplace environment and adopt the approach that fits its needs. Based on what we currently know, employers that implement mandatory policies will face significantly more onerous practical and legal considerations than those who adopt a voluntary approach.
Either way, communication is crucial. After choosing a mandatory or voluntary policy, employers should proactively communicate that policy. That prevents confusion and speculation among staff and gives employees the benefit of understanding leadership’s position.
What can employers do to support widespread vaccination?
Employers play leadership roles in the community as economic contributors, thought leaders and models of good behavior. They can leverage this leadership by promoting vaccination among employees and their families, among customers and vendors, and among the overall community.
Employers can help educate employees about vaccination’s benefits by publishing flyers or sending emails that correct misinformation about the vaccine and potential side effects. They can also host vaccination clinics similar to the annual flu shot clinics for employees; employees can get their shots at the clinics and those still on the fence can talk to nurses or other experts.
Employers that start planning now will be better prepared when the vaccine becomes widely available.
Are employers permitted to incentivize getting vaccinated?
The short answer is yes. If an employer adopts a voluntary program, it can legally provide both financial and in-kind incentives to get vaccinated. To the extent such incentives are part of a “wellness program,” however, employers should keep in mind wellness program incentives allowed under the EEOC, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Affordable Care Act, all of which are designed to ensure that incentives are not coercive.
Under the EEOC’s final rule on wellness programs, for example, incentives reach the level of coercion when they exceed 30% of the total cost for self-only coverage of the employee’s health insurance. For example, if the total cost for self-only coverage is $6,000 annually, the employer can only incentivize the employee up to $1,800.
What incentives are employers considering?
Incentives in support of COVID-19 vaccinations include extra paid time off, paying for any vaccination-associated costs and any sick leave incurred as a result of standard side effects from the vaccination, cash bonuses and contributing to employee 401(k)s. Now is the time to consider these incentives and how to promote them.