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RfH Insights: HR Teams Weigh In on Workplace Vaccination

January 7, 2021
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It’s a milestone that individuals and businesses have anticipated for months: the COVID-19 vaccine is finally (and gradually) being rolled out to millions worldwide.

But with daily infections still on the rise, the light at the end of the tunnel remains pretty dim. That hasn’t stopped People leaders from considering what to make of the vaccine’s arrival. Should HR teams require or softly encourage staff to get vaccinated? Is either approach even legal? If so, how do you decide who goes first?

“Lots of questions, not many answers yet,” admitted one senior HR leader.

Last month, we asked HR professionals in the Resources for Humans community to share how they’re thinking through vaccination for essential and non-essential workers. Below are some of the key themes. To join the conversation, sign up for the free Slack community here.

“Who should get it?”

While companies expecting to stay remote until the summer have time to weigh their options, the same can’t be said for those with essential staff. HR leaders from these businesses were already starting to think through prioritization.

Rita Wachtleer is an HR Generalist at Judge Baker Children’s Center, a non-profit that serves children by promoting their developmental and emotional well-being. Like many others in the RfH community, Wachtleer supports a mix of onsite and remote employees — and she understands that only a handful of them will even have access to the vaccine in the near-term.

“We have as many people at home as possible right now, including admin, finance, and other office workers. But of our many departments, one of them is a school,” Wachtleer said. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently announced that education employees would be next in line for the vaccine, behind hospital staff, senior facility employees, and those aged 75 and older.

“We’re focusing on ordering each department according to the vaccine distribution order. Right now, we’re focused on how to handle vaccine options for our teachers, facilities staff, and cafeteria workers,” she said. 

“Can we mandate it?”

Others in the community had reservations about whether a vaccine mandate was practical or worth the legal risk.

“Right now, we have no plans for the vaccine in the workplace...You as an employer can likely mandate the vaccine, but it would require a lot of administration,” said Adrienne Barnard, SVP of People Operations & Experience at AdmitHub. Citing all the other protective measures in place, she also doesn’t anticipate a mandate necessarily helping matters in the short-term, either. “I think we still have a good chunk of time before we are seeing the need to socially distance and wear masks declining,” she said.

Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance that companies could require vaccination, community members and HR compliance experts weren’t convinced. “You’d also have to allow for medical and religious exemptions, which is a lot of work to maintain compliance with,” she said. Determining what constitutes proof of vaccination isn’t straightforward, and asking for employee medical information the wrong way could run afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and health information privacy laws.

“Will employees take it?”

Some were grappling with possible resistance to the vaccine. One HR leader at an assisted living facility cited a survey that found less than a quarter of her industry’s workers planned to get vaccinated. Other community members considered distributing educational materials around availability and safety to put employees at ease.

Still, HR leaders encouraged peers to take an empathetic, not critical, approach to resistance. Attitudes toward the vaccine vary widely across demographics, and national polling shows that just 18% of Black and Latinx respondents believe the vaccine to be safe. History, one community leader explained, helps explain the disparity.

“I’d like to add an educational moment to recognize that most people aren’t aware of the Syphilis Study at Tuskegee,” said Morgan Williams, HR Manager at Casper. Conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972, the study purposely withheld care from hundreds of Black sharecroppers to observe the long-term effects of syphilis. The study’s “volunteers,” told they were receiving treatment, were given placebos.

The federal government only issued a formal apology decades later. “The study is a large part of the reason there’s an aversion to vaccines within the Black community today,” Williams said.

“Should it be required before returning?”

Others noted that the matter of whether to mandate vaccines dovetails into broader questions about the future of onsite work. According to one HR leader, if your company doesn’t have a clear perspective on the latter, it can’t weigh in on the former.

“The bigger picture, in my opinion, is to clearly articulate our post-pandemic strategy around office work. If we aren’t filling our facilities, the demand may not be as high or urgent — so where do you draw the line for [mandating] vaccines?” said Laurel Ditson, Sr. Director of People Operations and Spectra Logic. Once you’ve identified your position on remote and hybrid work, you can explore more nuanced questions, like “Are you only mandating them for those who work full-time in the building? What about hybrid workers? What about our partners, such as financial auditors?” Ditson said.

After all, explaining your case to employees isn’t just a matter of pointing to the EEOC’s guidance and saying, “Because we can.” Once employees know your company’s return-to-work plans and timeline, they’ll be much more receptive to any potential vaccination request, should that be your company’s choice.



To learn how other HR professionals are adapting to the new world of work, join the
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