As businesses grapple with increasing pressure from consumers, employees, healthcare officials, and politicians to help crack down on the recent spike in COVID cases, many are considering the option of mandating vaccines for their staff. Some will leave it up to employees, others will require all employees to get vaccinated and return to the office – either way, read up on how not to screw this up.
Should you choose to implement such a policy, it’s important to know what you can (and absolutely can’t) ask your employees to do – and how best to do it.
To start, you need to consider exceptions. A blanket COVID vaccine mandate for your employees may sound comprehensive, but certain groups are exempt from vaccine requirements. Failing to take that into account will result in an illegal mandate.
The ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) is a good place to start regarding exceptions. According to the Act, you must exempt any employee who cannot receive the vaccine due to a disability of any kind (chronic illness, recovery from having COVID, an infection). Your solutions will vary, but may include having the employee work from home or allowing them to work in a private space.
Employees should understand that, should their inability to receive the vaccine be temporary, they will be expected to receive it as soon as that inability lapses.
The other exceptions about which you’ve likely heard are for pregnancies and religious preferences.
The former is pretty cut-and-dry: If someone is pregnant and their obstetrician says they shouldn’t be vaccinated, follow ADA guidelines and can ask them to be vaccinated before returning from their leave.
Religious exemptions are harder to discern since the official language references a “sincere” belief against COVID vaccines. While you can (and should) discuss fringe issues with this exemption with your attorney, keep in mind that it isn’t your job to determine whether or not your employees are serious about their faith, its extent, or its limitations.
Your state or city may have further exemptions for you to consider, so consult any pertinent legislation before moving forward with your plan to implement a vaccine mandate.
Once you have determined your exemptions, you’ll need to communicate a few things to your employees: A time frame for vaccination, the aforementioned exceptions, and the consequences for failing to follow your mandate. HR expert, Suzanne Lucas posits that three months is a reasonable window for eligible employees to get vaccinated; she also says that termination is an acceptable consequence for noncompliance.
Lucas also recommends writing a “statement of need” to release to employees and/or the general public to address concerns and clear up confusion around what your new policy entails. This statement can be as simple as a quick acknowledgement of your decision, or you can elaborate on all of the above steps you’ve taken.
As long as you’re following these steps and refraining from pressuring employees who are exempt, you should be in the clear to invoke a mandatory COVID vaccine policy for your workers if you so choose. But you also have the right not to. This decision isn’t being made lightly by any company as there is no playbook to use here – you’re not alone if you find this process to be difficult.