The benefits of a vaccine mandate are obvious. The shot protects employees and helps reduce the risk of an outbreak in the workplace. So, employers are currently able to mandate COVID vaccines for their workforce if it’s legitimately necessary to perform the job and if they make reasonable accommodations for disabilities and religious beliefs.
However, be sure to stay up to date with any new laws in states where you have employees. Some states are working on legislation that will affect COVID vaccine mandates and employer vaccine policies, and those laws could override federal guidance — unless Congress itself passes legislation.
Asking for proof of vaccination
Feel free to ask your staff if they’ve been vaccinated — but if you aren’t mandating a vaccine and the employee answers no, avoid asking why. This type of questioning can be considered a medical inquiry, which, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, is only allowed when necessary for the job. If you request an employee show proof of vaccination, you should also request the employee not provide any additional personal medical information; this would go against the ADA’s guidelines.
You are allowed to make hiring decisions based on whether candidates have been vaccinated if and only if a shot would be essential for the job. It’s best to have consistent policies with your current employees to show why it’s a job necessity.
Communicating With Employees About the Vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines are currently available to the public under the federal Emergency Use Authorization, which is a quicker-than-normal approval process created for public health emergencies. The Food and Drug Administration approved these vaccines based on the best available evidence.
This special approval process may cause employees to feel dubious about the safety of the vaccines. It’s helpful to communicate to your workforce that the vaccines are still rigorously tested through large-scale clinical trials, which meet the FDA’s testing standards. Patients usually receive a fact sheet with this information when they get the shot, but as their employer, you can proactively share helpful resources about the benefits, effectiveness, and side effects of the vaccine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests finding trusted champions in the community to help raise awareness about the importance of the vaccine. Use resources like the CDC’s communications toolkit for essential workers, and offer multiple opportunities for vaccination at on-site or mobile clinics. Employees who initially don’t want a shot may start to feel at ease as they see their co-workers getting vaccinated. You might also offer paid time off to get the shot or paid sick leave in case employees have side effects.
Be transparent about what is still unknown, like whether the vaccine prevents virus transmission. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration recommends all workers, whether vaccinated or not, continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing until we learn more.
Accommodating Disabilities and Religious Beliefs
Like COVID-19 testing in the workplace, vaccination policies at work are subject to several federal laws protecting workers: the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Remember, pregnancies are considered disabilities under the ADA, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires employers to provide pregnant workers possible job modifications if they are unable to come to work.
If an employee cannot receive a vaccination because of a disability, under the ADA, you cannot prevent them from working. Instead, provide a reasonable accommodation and an alternative solution that reduces the risk that the unvaccinated worker would expose others to the virus. Employees might also request accommodations based on a religious practice or belief under the Civil Rights Act, which employers must honor unless it would result in a significant cost or burden to the business.
It’s important to have open communication with employees who request accommodations. Different types of accommodations are described on the federal Job Accommodation Network website. Remember, you can’t legally disclose accommodations or retaliate against an employee who requests one.
If a reasonable accommodation is impossible, employers can take other actions, like allowing the employee to work remotely or considering whether they’re eligible for leave under other federal laws such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Continue Monitoring for COVID in the Workplace
Ultimately, it may take some employees time to feel comfortable getting a COVID vaccine. So, lead with empathy, and continue other safety precautions like social distancing, masks, hand sanitizer stations, and COVID screening and testing. Testing can help prevent the spread until enough people are vaccinated.
Ready to test your team? Learn how we can help today with quick and reliable testing that helps keep your people safe.
Katrina Ballard writes about health, technology and education. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from American University.
US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - Undue Hardship Issues
US Food and Drug Administration - Understanding the Regulatory Terminology of Potential Preventions and Treatments for COVID-19
US Food and Drug Administration - Emergency Use Authorizations for Vaccines Explained
Occupational Safety and Health Administration - Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Workplace Vaccination Program
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Essential Workers COVID-19 Vaccine Toolkit