The city of Phoenix recently announced that it will pay each employee $75 to get vaccinated. Why pay someone to do something that’s supposedly in their own best interest?
For employers longing to see COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, SHRM has sobering news. Nearly 2,500 SHRM members responded to random electronic surveys in December 2020 and January 2021. Members surveyed represented U.S. organizations ranging in size from two to over 25,000 employees. The topic: receptivity to vaccination. The results of these surveys were analyzed in conjunction with a survey of working Americans done by the University of Chicago in late January.
The surveys’ bottom line: Up to 40 percent of the workforce may opt out on vaccination. I asked Dr. Charles Elder, Portland, Ore., what this means in terms of herd immunity. If these survey results prove accurate, will we be able to relegate COVID-19 to the past? “People can become immune either by getting COVID-19, or by getting vaccinated,” Elder stated. “In order to prevent broad community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, experts project that herd immunity must be maintained in the range of 75 percent.” These numbers suggest we’re in for a long, tough haul before potentially achieving herd immunity.
“We could see a real ‘vaccine vortex’ and a potential financial firestorm impacting employers who need a vaccinated workforce to sustain their enterprises, and those who are likely to avoid the vaccine at all costs,” stated SHRM Chief Knowledge Officer Alex Alonso, SHRM-SCP, based in Alexandria, Va. “The number of employees who indicate they will not get the vaccine, even at the risk of losing their job, raises important questions for organizations.”
Should employers who find this information disturbing make vaccination mandatory and perhaps also require proof of vaccination as a condition of continued employment? As has been written elsewhere, subject to a few exceptions such as disability or religious accommodation, employers can require vaccination as a condition of employment.
The survey data indicates that of the 40 percent inclined to opt out, nearly a third said they would get vaccinated if necessary to keep their jobs. Nearly a quarter of the 40 percent group said that if vaccination isn’t required but encouraged, they would consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine if offered incentives. Although sample sizes are too small to be statistically significant, incentives that might be persuasive include cash, additional paid time off, gift cards, food vouchers and convenient onsite, no-cost vaccination.
Another point worth noting regarding the 40 percent: Although sample sizes were too small to be statistically significant, the survey suggests that as additional information and evidence of the vaccine’s safety and positive effects arise, potentially a substantial number of vaccine resistors will move to the other side. Elder believes that many people who initially balk at the vaccination can in fact be convinced. “Vaccine acceptance can be materially improved when physicians directly recommend the vaccine to patients, through dispelling misunderstandings about the disease and vaccination process, and with adequate education about vaccine risks and benefits.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
“If CEO, I would create and lead a steering committee of the company to assess the situation and activate a company response,” stated Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Co. in Philadelphia. His steering committee would include the head of HR, general counsel, the head of global supply chain, the chief medical officer, the head of corporate communications and the chief financial officer.
According to Conant, specific members of the steering committee would be responsible for shaping and shepherding each of the following three streams of activity:
- an education program for all employees and their families,
- an employee-representative task force to explicitly gather employee input and connect the population to the process, and
- an expert panel from within the company to ensure that the company was well connected to all industry and government agencies. This panel would also be responsible for staying abreast of corporate response efforts within the organization and beyond.
Conant stated he would also set up regular briefing meetings for the steering committee “and design a process where each stream of activity was kept appropriately abreast of the developments of the other streams of activity.”
Conant also would set a deadline. “We would have a goal of finalizing and activating a company response plan within 30 days.”
Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, a Phoenix-based senior HR executive for the state of Arizona, thinks along similar lines. “It’s probably not realistic for an employer to hope for a permanently COVID-19-free workplace. There are too many variables out of the employer’s control. Even if all employees were vaccinated tomorrow, we don’t know how long the effects of the vaccine will last. If the employer serves the public, there is potential of continued exposure(s), especially if all recommended mitigation measures are not consistently followed.”
Whatever policies an employer adopts, McManus recommended inclusion of these components:
- A learning and development program using reliable sources of information, so that employees can educate themselves and their families on the vaccine(s).
- A procedure for individuals who are mandated to receive the vaccine to request accommodation for medical or religious reasons. “Many employers already have these types of procedures in place, so it might be helpful to review them to see if any updates are needed for this consideration.”
- A review committee consisting of leadership with decision-making authority and professionals with knowledge of HR, benefits, occupational health and legal to review policy issues and requests for accommodations, as well as address employee questions or concerns about the policies.
- A communications plan identifying the who, what, when, where and why of the vaccination policies. “A communications plan helps employers to think carefully through the necessary steps, timing and types of messaging to ensure a more successful rollout.”
Staying Current on the Latest Updates
“It is essential to have a team that stays completely aware of the most recent information regarding the benefits and potential side effects of the vaccine,” stated Paul Jones, chief people officer, USANA Health Sciences, Salt Lake City. “This team should be charged with educating the entire company workforce to ensure all understand the risks and rewards.”
Jones also recommended that companies “wrestle with how established policies regarding this issue can affect the culture and trust in the organization. Gathering insight regarding specific courses of action prior to taking those actions will significantly reduce the risk of negatively impacting those vital factors of a successful organization.”
Rich Stayner, CEO at Bridge Property Management in Sandy, Utah, sees both sides of the argument for vaccination. “As an employer, I want to keep all employees as well as residents of our properties safe. We do that now by requiring masks, social distancing, temperature registration and any personal protection that is necessary.”
“The thought of making a vaccine a requirement for employment seems too extreme at the moment,” Stayner stated. He propounds developing an overall action plan of education about vaccines as well as health and wellness protocols and potentially a program for vaccination that’s not necessarily mandatory.
“One of the things I struggle with is the thought that the current vaccine, in its current form, only has antibodies for a certain amount of time. Does that mean that the policy of vaccination would now exist on an annual basis in order for employees to stay employed? This seems extreme. I believe there are just too many unknowns to use ‘mandatory’ as part of new or continued employment,” Stayner said.
Alternatives to Mandatory Vaccination
When there are a significant number of workers who are unlikely to get vaccinations in a timely fashion, Michael Tkach, Psy.D., chief operating and behavioral health officer, Affinity Return to Work in St. Paul, Minn., recommended that employers consider alternatives to mandatory vaccination. “These can include COVID-19 screening, minimizing shift overlap, monitoring overall adherence to COVID-19 reduction techniques and preventive PCR testing—a COVID-19 molecular test that uses the polymerase chain reaction lab technique.”
Tkach noted that PCR tests may be seen as less invasive or less anxiety producing than vaccines since they report whether the virus is present “instead of introducing a medical compound with an intended biological effect.” He added, “Results can then be monitored through an appropriate HR representative to verify current infection status, helping to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading through the workforce, and giving employers and employees peace of mind at work.”