When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in early 2020, the economic effects were immediately felt by business owners around the country. Apart from the loss of life, many businesses have also faced financial crises during this time.
Now that the situation seems to be getting back to normal or ‘new normal’ as some would put it, companies and employers are looking forward to getting back to brick-and-mortar offices.
Unfortunately, there is a catch. President Joe Biden has issued a mandate asking all companies with 100 or more employees to get fully vaccinated before resuming work from the office.
The employees who are not fully vaccinated need to get tested every week before working from the office. This decision has received both positive and negative feedback. As a business owner, you might even wonder if it is legal to make vaccination mandatory in your workforce.
Can Employers Make COVID-19 Vaccination Mandatory?
As per the guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(EEOC), given the unprecedented circumstances, it is within legal bounds to ask your staff to get vaccinated. However, as an employer, you should also allow exceptions in some cases and follow a few legal nuances to avoid running afoul of the federal anti-discrimination law.
In the coming years, numerous litigations can be expected around vaccine mandates, as the laws and the healthcare situation are constantly changing. An employer can only try to comply with the government’s orders while upholding the rights of their employees to the best of their ability. While you can go ahead and make it mandatory for your workforce to get the jab, there are a few caveats that can’t be overlooked.
Here are 5 Legal Considerations for COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates in the Workplace:
1. Vaccines and Religious Accommodations
Religion has always been a sensitive topic in the country, and with this new vaccine mandate thrown into the mix, things can get a bit complicated. While it is legal to implement a stringent vaccination policy at the workplace, but in cases of special religious beliefs, exceptions can be made.
Here’s the legal literature on special religious cases:
- According to the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is important that employers accommodate the ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ of their employees when it pertains to matters such as vaccination.
- As an employer, however, you do have more power in this situation. The accommodation of this act is only viable as long as it costs negligible or next to nothing for your business to entertain such cases. If it creates even a minor dent in your economic operations, then you are eligible to take legal recourse.
Conversely, the term ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ can be misconstrued due to its ambiguous nature. Ultimately, it is best to make sure that all parties are happy with resorting to litigation.
2. Wage, Hours, and Vaccine Considerations
A poor judgement call on the company’s part, which can often be legally expensive, is giving a vaccination mandate to all the employees but not providing them the necessary time to get it done. Many companies might face legal consequences for failing to comply with this consideration.
A reasonable employer should not only grant their employees the time to get vaccinated, but they should also provide paid leave to them to get the jab and to recover from its side effects if need be. This is an excellent work practice that will win over the trust of your employees, even those who are reluctant to get vaccinated at the behest of a government order.
Upon the direction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), federal law has made it mandatory to provide paid leaves to employees to get the vaccination and to recuperate from post-vaccination symptoms. Hence, it is best to provide the time and resources to get your staff vaccinated.
3. Requirement of Personalized Communication With Employees
The COVID-19 vaccination and the future booster shots have become a major hot button topic in the country, with people often being split along political lines regarding this matter. Your business also might see a similar dichotomy. Here are a few ways to get the un-vaccinated on board:
- Have personalized communication with the employees who are yet to get the jab or are hesitant to get it, apart from religious reasons. You can do this via personal chat, telephone communication, or a personalized email conversation where you take their concerns seriously and address them in a friendly yet professional manner.
- If you have a human resource team, you can conduct seminars and other such small, in-office events to educate the staff on the importance of vaccination. Be sure to not make it political and keep it as neutral as possible.
- Moreover, there might be certain demographics who might be more reluctant to get the jab due to cultural or historic reasons. For example, it was found in one company that African American employees between the ages of 20 to 40 years registered for vaccination far less than other employees. It was resolved by involving local leaders of the community, who were able to guide these employees to get vaccinated.
- Lastly, there are certain HR focused business consultants who further explain the benefits of vaccination to the employees. These consultants are industry experts who are proficient at tackling specific problems which may hinder the growth of a corporation, in this case, it is the lack of cooperation by the employees. Thus, these experts can act as a mediator and establish personalized communication with those who are reluctant to get the shot. By outsourcing this service, the problem can be nipped in the bud so that productivity won’t be adversely affected in the long run.
4. Share Clearly About the Consequences of Not Following The Mandate
A mandate is only valid if it is followed properly, and those who break the mandate face some kind of consequence. In the case of vaccinations, the health of other workers might be at risk due to some employees who refuse to get a shot. In such cases, it is important to take a clear approach and tell them the consequences of their actions.
- To legitimize the mandate, consider adding a specific time frame by which all staff should be vaccinated.
- Make it clear that if employees, who do not fall under exceptional circumstances, continue to refuse to get vaccine shots, then there might be severe action taken against them. Recently, a court in Canada removed unvaccinated members from the jury during a trial. When consequences are serious and clear, it can convince employees to follow the vaccine mandate.
- New employees who are joining in this timeframe should be made aware of this mandate in advance. It can even be mentioned in the employment contract that getting a COVID-19 vaccine shot by a particular date is non-negotiable and not following the mandate can lead to legal consequences in the future. This keeps you in the clear so no one can file litigation against you.
5. Reasoning Behind the Mandate Should Be Very Clear
At the end of the day, any business owner is just looking to run a profitable operation. To achieve this, it is vital to have a competent workforce that is not suffering from any health issues or similar complications. This needs to be the sole reasoning behind the vaccine mandate in your workspace. Communicate clearly and well in advance that you need all your employees healthy and risk-free, making it perfectly reasonable to follow through with this rule.
Most employees, even the hesitant ones, can get behind this idea once they see that it is not politically motivated or a bid to placate the government but to simply ensure the well-being of their coworkers.
In the end, you must realize that this is a difficult time for not just you as a business owner, but also for the employees who are under your payroll. Thus, it is important to treat them with understanding and compassion at this time.
Keeping these 5 considerations in mind will help implement the vaccination mandates a whole lot smoother for your firm/company, and you can also avoid almost all litigations that may come your way if you don’t deal with this with careful planning.