Late last year, news of the various COVID-19 vaccine approvals and roll-outs brought some relief to many across the world, with hope that the pandemic may be brought under control in the not-so-distant future. Along with this renewed hope, however, came a new set of considerations for employers: how quickly will vaccines be rolled out? To what extent can employers decide how and when employees receive the vaccine? How do employees and employers feel about getting the vaccine?
Earlier this month, we published a list of FAQs for HR Managers in India regarding the legality and duty of care obligations for employers in India with regards to the vaccine. Globally, however, answers and approaches to these questions remain complicated. Across the globe, vaccine programs will be rolled out at different rates and scales depending on the country and employers within these geographies will have to react and adjust their plans accordingly, taking into account how their employees feel too.
In the US, for example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance stating that the COVID-19 vaccine did not constitute a medical examination and employers could, in theory, mandate employee vaccinations or proof of vaccination before returning to the workplace. However, there were a number of exceptions, and all pre-screening questioning for the vaccine will need to be “job-related and consistent with business necessity,” so as not to infringe on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s rules prohibiting disability-related inquiries.
Do workers feel safer with a vaccine?
Survey data and reports give mixed reports on attitudes to the COVID-19 vaccine. Some reports indicated that workers would not have felt completely at ease returning to the workplace before a vaccine was found. Others show that workers have fear and mistrust of the vaccine itself. A November 2020 Atlassian survey, for example, found that 83% of the workforce in India were nervous to go back to office without a COVID-19 vaccine. Confidence in the vaccine has also seen an uptick among workers. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 60% of US workers now say they would “definitely or probably” get a COVID-19 vaccine, increasing from 51% who said the same in September.
However, when it comes to the question of an actual employer-mandated vaccine, it gets a little more complicated. A recent CNBC | SurveyMonkey Workforce Happiness Index poll indicates just over half (57%) of US workers would support mandating everyone at the workplace get the COVID-19 vaccinations before being permitted to return in-person. In a survey released by Perceptyx this week, it was revealed that while close to half (47%) of those surveyed believe employers should require vaccination of their employees, 43 percent actually reported that they would consider leaving their organization if the vaccine was a requirement.
A similar number (49%) of US respondents to an Eagle Hill Consulting survey agree that employers should mandate a vaccine before returning to the workplace. However, responses were varied based on gender and generation: 53% of men supported such measures versus just 44% of women. Furthermore, the youngest members of the workforce were also the most supportive of employer mandates vaccines (62%), versus Millennials (50%), GenX (46%) and Baby Boomers (46%).
“Employers must get in front of the vaccine issue today,” said Melissa Jezior, Eagle Hill Consulting’s president and CEO in a statement. “There has never been a more crucial time for meaningful employee engagement, which could make or break organizations already struggling. It won't be enough to just announce vaccine plans to employees. Instead, leaders are prudent to engage in conversations to understand the views of their workforce now to develop a vaccine strategy that is aligned with business goals and employee preferences.”
Whatever the future holds with regards to vaccine mandates and workplace returns, it’s clear that trust-building and transparency will be absolutely critical in making a case for inoculation and reassuring employees that every measure is being taken to best ensure their safety.
How are other organizations and companies dealing with the vaccine question?
Broadly speaking, companies are taking a mix of approaches to vaccination and their employees. German supermarket chain ALDI just announced their intention to pay employees to take the vaccine, covering costs for the dose and giving them up to four hours salary to get the inoculation. Similarly, delivery company Instacart said they will pay workers $25 if they need time off to get the vaccine. There may be some real merit to this method: according to the Perceptyx survey, 60% of employees said they would take the vaccine if their employers offered them a monetary incentive of $100.
Elsewhere, major tech companies such as Facebook have indicated they will not make vaccines mandatory for their staff. In a statement given to The Verge, the social media giant reported that, during a Q&A, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was “confident in the vaccine” and looking forward to getting the vaccine himself, but that “at this point, we don’t think it will be necessary to require a vaccine for employees to return to work.” At the time of writing, Facebook workers remain largely remote, with a plan in place to open offices back up by July 2021. It seems that when Facebook’s office doors do reopen, they will employ a blend of social distancing, health and safety protocols and vaccinations to keep employees safe.
Elsewhere, other corporations are starting to put efforts into shaping their workplace vaccine policies. In the automobile industry, for example, giants such as Ford and General Motors announced they would not mandate vaccinations for their employees in order to return to the physical workplace. Speaking in December, United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble said “I believe it’s important for as many members as possible to be vaccinated. That said, just like the policy over flu shots there will be some that over religious beliefs, or medical history or personal beliefs will have concerns about being vaccinated and so I don’t believe it should be mandatory.”
Clearly, there are mixed feelings among both employers and employees about how best to approach vaccines in the workplace. One thing to bear in mind is that, according to Dr. Brett Wells, Director of People Analytics at Perceptyx, “those who feel sincerely cared about by their managers are more likely to trust and be persuaded by their employer's encouragement to get vaccinated. This is just one more reason why great leadership and investing in the individual and unique needs of employees is critical to an organization's success.”
In this regard, HR workers and people & work professionals are uniquely positioned to have an impact on how comfortable employees feel getting the vaccine and ensuring that - whatever policy their organization adopts - the process is communicated and carried out with care, understanding, compassion and with the best interests of their people in mind.