COVID Vaccine Requirements

As vaccines for COVID-19 continue to roll out across the world, organizations are beginning to ask questions about vaccine requirements, and how they will affect business operations. Different governments are taking different approaches in determining whether or not employers can require employees to get vaccinated.

Depending on your location, industry, and working environment, you might be asking if vaccine requirements are the right choice for your company. If you’re wondering where to start, here is what you need to know about the legal status of mandatory vaccines, the differences in approaches between countries, and insights on how to determine appropriate vaccination policies for your workforce.

International Differences: Where Can Employers Require Vaccinations?

The US federal government has recently determined that employers can require vaccination from employees and bar them from the workplace if they refuse to comply. While the federal government is allowing employers to require the vaccine, a few states are considering prohibiting the vaccine mandate for the workplace. The state of Montana, for example, has made vaccine status a protected category, barring employers from asking workers to be vaccinated.

In Canada, employers can likely require employees to be vaccinated, now that the vaccine is widely available to anyone who wishes to get it. The requirement may be similar to how companies can require pre-employment drug and alcohol testing, and criminal and medical clearance in some cases.

In Europe, most countries generally do not permit employers to make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory. However, Italy and the UK recently made the vaccine mandatory for employees in patient-facing healthcare roles, and it is expected that other countries and industries will eventually follow suit.

Even in countries where it is permitted, employers must ensure that any vaccine requirements do not violate applicable privacy laws when implementing vaccination policies. Accordingly, employers must demonstrate that any pre-screening questions are explicitly related to the job and business necessities.

Should Your Workplace Require Vaccinations?

Not all work environments are made equal, so there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to workplace vaccine requirements. You need to factor in the physical environment, the nature and frequency of face-to-face interactions, and the operational risks of a potential COVID shutdown. There are five key considerations to take into account when determining if requiring vaccinations is the right approach for your business:

  • Collective Agreement Language: If your workplace is unionized, what is the specific language about vaccinations and health information in the collective bargaining agreement?
  • Workplace Environment: Is it isolated? Would an outbreak be hard to contain? Are employees unable to work from home?
  • Vulnerable Populations: Do your employees have regular contact with populations particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, including the elderly, immunocompromised, or indigenous communities?
  • Employee Proximity: Is it possible to maintain social distancing, or are employees frequently working close to others?
  • Essential Service: Are your employees providing services that were deemed essential by governments during the pandemic?

Managing Exclusions and Employee Accommodations

If you do decide that requiring proof of vaccination is the right option for your business, it must be approached with sensitivity regarding the privacy of your employees, and you must be sure to develop plans and procedures for managing exclusion and accommodations for employees who cannot be vaccinated. Valid reasons for not being vaccinated include:

  • Allergies
  • Underlying medical conditions
  • Religious beliefs
  • Pregnancy

In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that federal law demands employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for unvaccinated employees, to keep them and their coworkers safe. This could include:

  • Allowing them to work remotely for a determined period
  • Physically separating them from coworkers
  • Receiving periodic COVID-19 tests
  • Placing them on a leave of absence
  • Reassigning them to lower risk tasks
  • Mandating the continued use of masks for unvaccinated workers

Employers also need to be extremely mindful that some individuals or demographic groups face greater barriers to receiving a vaccine than others due to a multitude of socioeconomic factors, and may be disproportionately impacted by a vaccine requirement. Any vaccine requirements must work in concert with diversity and inclusion principles in an effort to avoid discriminatory policies.

Encouraging Voluntary Vaccinations for Employees

If you decide that mandatory vaccine requirements are not the right choice for your employees, there are still ways employers can encourage employees to get vaccinated, protecting the health of their coworkers and the integrity of your operations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), US employers are permitted to offer incentives to employees who voluntarily provide documentation confirming that they received a vaccine. Employers must keep vaccination records confidential per the ADA.

Canadian employers are allowed to offer incentives as well. Companies are providing paid time off for employees to schedule vaccinations, and some are offering cash bonuses for employees who provide proof of vaccination. Companies across Europe and Asia are offering incentives like free airline tickets and extra vacation time.

Although providing a financial incentive is legal in many countries, employers must be careful that these policies do not result in unintentional discriminatory impacts. They need to think carefully about how they can ensure that those who cannot receive the vaccine due to medical or religious reasons are still capable of enjoying the benefits of such policies, or are given access to other benefits.

Employers can also encourage vaccinations by addressing information gaps and providing targeted education regarding the safety of vaccines, where to get vaccinated, and the role that they play in keeping coworkers safe and healthy. 

Whatever strategy you choose, you must understand the legal status of vaccine requirements in your country and ensure that your employees’ health and privacy rights are not violated. Regulations also continue to evolve, so everyone is encouraged to stay informed about the legal status of vaccine requirements from the governing bodies where you operate.

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