As SVP of Human Resources at Indeed, I’m in frequent contact with a group of fellow HR leaders across a range of industries. The hottest topic in our discussions right now? Employee vaccinations.
The questions we’ve asked one another include: Should employers require their workers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of working on site? What should you do if workers want to know the vaccination status of colleagues working next to them? Do you have a plan to offer vaccinations to your employees or otherwise motivate them to get vaccinated?
At this point, we have more questions than answers. With vaccine availability continuing to evolve — not to mention the threats that new COVID-19 variants might pose — nobody has figured it all out. Still, it’s worth sharing what we’ve learned so far.
Please note that some of the questions outlined below touch on legal issues; I’ve done my best to answer them, but I’m not a legal expert, nor in a position to give legal advice. Always consult with your own legal experts when considering how to answer these questions.
Can businesses require employees to get vaccinated?
Employers can require employees to take safety precautions, such as receiving vaccinations, to protect their fellow workers. And last December, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided detailed guidance that says requiring employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccination isn’t a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) per se.
But there are exceptions. It’s important to note that some employees may object to vaccinations for medical reasons, and requiring these employees to be vaccinated anyway would be a violation of the ADA.
Also, some employees may resist vaccinations due to religious beliefs; requiring them to receive a vaccine anyway would be a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination based on religious beliefs (among other things).
Should businesses require employees to be vaccinated?
The question of whether a business should require employees to get vaccinated is more complicated. My answer is that it depends.
It may make sense to require vaccines for a large team of frontline workers (those who interact with the public or must be physically present to perform their jobs). One example is United Airlines, whose CEO Scott Kirby says making vaccines mandatory for its employees was “the right thing to do.”
It’s easy to see why some businesses that employ mostly knowledge workers may view vaccination as a less immediate need: their jobs don’t require in-person interactions. For example, most HR leaders I’ve talked to at tech companies aren’t requiring employee vaccinations anytime soon, because so much of their workforce is working from home.
At Indeed, we don’t plan to require employees to get vaccinated before returning to our offices. For context, nearly all of Indeed’s 10,000 global employees have been working remotely since early March 2020. As of now, we don’t plan to require any employees to return to an Indeed office until September 7, 2021 — a date we may reevaluate depending upon the pandemic’s trajectory.
Can employers provide COVID-19 vaccines to their employees?
Vaccines are still relatively scarce; their distribution is unpredictable at best and highly inequitable at worst. If it were feasible to offer vaccines directly to employees, a lot of companies — including Indeed — would be doing it.
We’re doing our best at Indeed to partner with drugstore retailers and even vaccine manufacturers to make COVID-19 vaccines widely available to all employees by 2022 or 2023. Given that epidemiologists are estimating COVI9-19 will be with us for years, if not decades, we hope to be able to offer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots every year at our offices, just as we’ve done with flu and other immunizations.
What should you do if vaccinated workers only want to sit next to other vaccinated employees?
This is a great question — and a hard one to answer.
Before returning to the workplace, some vaccinated employees will want to know if those working near them have been vaccinated, too. Without that information, they may be reluctant to return — especially since there is some concern regarding how effective current vaccines may be against new COVID-19 variants.
The ideal solution would be that your employees voluntarily share their vaccination status with coworkers they sit near. But you certainly can’t count on that or ask anyone to disclose their vaccination status to others, as immunization records are protected health information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The scenario gets even more complicated when you consider that, in some offices, employees won’t be returning to assigned desks. Given the rise of remote work, some people may only go into an office a few days a week. In that case, “hoteling” — providing a desk to an employee on an as-needed basis — is much more practical than designating workspaces to specific employees.
But with hoteling, an employee may sit next to one set of coworkers on Monday and a different set on Wednesday. Trying to accommodate concerns about sitting near unvaccinated employees thus becomes even more problematic. Even if you succeeded in physically separating vaccinated from unvaccinated employees, what happens if one of the unvaccinated employees contracts COVID-19? Suddenly, all the employees who work near that person are at risk.
For these and other reasons, this issue is extremely difficult to navigate. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who’s come up with a definitive solution yet.
Employers can help solve ‘the last mile’ problem
Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that three business leaders went for a walk together in their Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood. During their walk, the leaders of Honeywell, Atrium Health and Tepper Sports & Entertainment voiced their frustrations over the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in their area. By the end of their stroll, they’d developed a plan that leveraged the strengths and resources of each company to speed the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in their metro area.
I’d love to see other enterprises — especially tech companies — collaborate with one another like this, as well as with their local and state governments, to quicken the pace of vaccination distribution and administration.
Think about it: Part of the problem of getting shots into arms involves scheduling vaccine appointments on a large, unprecedented scale. Local governments are already stretched thin by the financial crisis that COVID-19 caused. They lack the resources and the expertise to efficiently handle mass scheduling.
On the other hand, I can think of several large tech companies that possess both the resources and the expertise to solve mass scheduling and other roadblocks that are slowing down the vaccine rollout.So I’ll end with a question for you: How might you, as a business or HR leader, partner with other employers to help pick up the pace of vaccinations in your area? If you have a suggestion or an interest in discussing a possible collaboration with Indeed, please contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn.