There have been five pandemics since the 1918 Spanish Flu. Each one has challenged communities and economies. Pandemics are especially tough on business. COVID-19 has proved itself a major hazard over the past year. But the introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine is changing outlooks. Could it mean sharing workspaces again? Stronger profits? Longer business hours, or more open doors? The key to these opportunities could be widespread vaccination. How can employers support safer workplaces and communities?
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we welcome back Ruth Binger. She joined us previously for our episode on the state of medical marijuana in Missouri. Binger is a Principal with the Danna McKitrick, P.C., a full-service law firm based in St. Louis, MO. She serves both emerging and mature businesses, focusing on corporate law, intellectual property and labor and employment law.
First, we’ll share how employers can support employees in getting a vaccine. Then, we’ll talk about whether or not an employer can mandate vaccines. Finally, we’ll discuss what employers can do to promote COVID-19 safety.
While Binger is a licensed attorney, this information is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice.
Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.
COVID-19 vaccine: Encouraging employees to get vaccinated
Vaccines are important to employers for two reasons. First, they help keep people safe. Second, they can increase productivity. Many employers today are encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. They are still following important safety measures. These include wearing masks and social distancing. But along with the vaccine, they can help employers get back to business.
Employees may need support to get vaccinate. Some have busy work schedules. Others may still be deciding whether or not to get it. Employers can step in to help. Binger finds that most are using the following methods:
- Paid time off. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have two doses. Most companies are offering two hours for each one.
- Gifts. Some companies are offering a little something extra to vaccinated employees. Binger does warn employers to be careful here. Not all employees can have the vaccine. Any gifts should be moderate.
- Longer sick leave. The American Rescue Plan extended COVID-19 benefits. One of them is paid and emergency family leave. Vaccines are still being sent out nationwide. As a result, travel may be required to get one. Binger pointed out that some people are even driving up to 4-5 hours to get it. Employees can use this time to get vaccinated. First, employers pay upfront. Then, they will receive a tax credit later.
In addition, employees may face social pressure. Vaccinated people can gather in the same place. Further, they don’t always have to wear masks. If most employees are vaccinated, then they can return to the workplace. Other employees won’t want to miss out. A few may opt to get the vaccine for this reason.
Can employers ask employees if they have been vaccinated?
Employers can ask if their employees has been vaccinated. Moreover, they can ask to see a vaccination card. This is proof someone has had a vaccine. However, if an employee hasn’t had the vaccine, employers cannot ask why. They may choose not to for a variety of reasons.
COVID-19 vaccine: Mandatory vaccinations
The COVID-19 vaccine opens the door to new opportunities. But some people will choose not to get a vaccine. Binger pointed out that this may not be an issue for many businesses. Many people are working remotely due to COVID. They don’t have contact with customers. Others work in private offices. They don’t come into contact with coworkers. If these employees don’t get vaccinated, then it may not have a big effect on the business. It depends on your industry.
There are a few situations where mandatory vaccines could be required. The healthcare industry is one of them. Workers come into contact with sick patients often. They also provide vital services. Their chance of getting sick is high. As a result, some healthcare providers have made the vaccine mandatory. However, Binger added, this would be a challenge for other businesses. There are a few reasons someone chooses not to be vaccinated. They include:
- Medical reasons. An employee may have a medical condition that makes the vaccine a danger to their health. For example, pregnant women may opt out due to personal choice.
- Disability reasons. An employee may have a disability that prevents them from getting the vaccine.
- Religious reasons. An employee may hold certain religious beliefs and choose not to get the vaccine.
Binger pointed out that there are also employees who won’t have a reason. Do you have employees that don’t like to take advice? Have a hard time working in a team, or under a manager? Most employers know which team members have these personalities. And they’ll likely choose not to be vaccinated. This has already been seen in some industries – even in essential fields, such as healthcare and the military.
Can employers mandate an employee get vaccinated?
There are few cases that allow for this. Is the unvaccinated employee a direct threat? Do they present an infection risk to patients, customers, or visitors? Their fellow coworkers? Would they be at risk themselves? Employers must determine this. How long would they be at risk? How severe is the risk? What are the consequences? Consider ways to accommodate an employee first.
Binger also warns employers of a rare kind of case. COVID-19 benefits allow for more paid time off. Some employees may try to take advantage. For instance, is there an employee who is exposed to COVID often? Do they regularly have to miss work to quarantine? Watch for any patterns of behavior. Employees like these could be considered direct threats.
Supporting safe workplaces and communities
It’s important for employers to do their part to keep people safe. Further, mandatory vaccines aren’t always the right approach. Binger shared the following measures to keep people safe:
- Offer paid time off for vaccine appointments
- Consider voluntarily extending sick leave
- Have employees work remotely
- Encourage social distancing and mask wearing
The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) offers answers to common questions. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are a great place for the latest information. Keeping business going in a pandemic is hard. But the COVID-19 vaccine may change things. Employers can help by providing the right support.