Employers trying to find answers on coronavirus vaccines in the workplace

Carlos Dennis, Ron DeSantis, Javier Crespo
Posted at 10:28 PM, Jan 14, 2021

As the coronavirus vaccine rolls out across the country, employers are fielding many questions from employees about the vaccine. Human resource professionals are busier than ever, trying to find answers in territory that's unprecedented.

“We have had our busiest year yet with all the COVID questions that have come along,” said Amber Clayton, director of the Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

“We get about 65,000 questions a year, and we’ve gotten a number of questions with regards to the vaccination,” Clayton added. She said as COVID-19 vaccines are finally distributed, many are wondering what that means at work and at school.

“Whether or not they can require vaccinations for their employees and if they do require it, what happens if an employee refuses to get the vaccine,” Clayton said. “We’ve had questions around the liability, if an employer administers the vaccine.”

And, if it is required, where should an employee get it? And what policies should be in place?

“It’s gonna depend on the industry, and of course if there are any state or local laws as well so they have to look to that as well,” Clayton said.

When asked what employers should do if an employee refuses a vaccine, Clayton said, “It depends on the circumstances. So, for example, if an employee refuses because they have a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, then an employer may have to make a reasonable accommodation absent undue hardship.”

Valerie Keels sits on a SHRM panel that helps offer vaccine guidance, among other things, and said, "We understand that people who do take this very seriously and do want to be vaccinated may not feel comfortable with unvaccinated people in the office. Obviously, these are some questions we’ll have to answer probably sooner rather than later.”

She's in a good position to do so, given her job with GAVI, The Vaccine Alliance. It's a global non-profit organization that helps provide vaccines to developing countries.

“My organization is involved with vaccines,” Keels said. “We do support the vaccine and the effort to make sure employees are vaccinated. We can’t require that legally, but we do support it.”

SHRM says it's likely that most employees will be encouraged, not mandated. If it is required, then the employer will probably have to pay for it and help employees get it.

“The EEOC has considered the pandemic a direct threat so employers may face challenges in employees leaving the organization if they do decide to mandate the vaccines, they could potentially lose employees as a result of that,” said Clayton.

Or, on the flip side, businesses may have a hard time recruiting employees, or keeping them, if they don't feel safe at work amongst those who choose not to vaccinate. The good news is we've all adjusted to remote employment.

“We’ve also revamped our telework policy because obviously telework works and we have proof that it works so we’ll be more flexible obviously with allowing people to work from home,” says Keels.

These are questions that will likely continue as the workforce prepares to go back into the office.