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Vaccine management: 5 factors that can help organizations bring employees back to the workplace safely

By Stephanie Mount
Finally, there is hope regarding the COVID-19 pandemic across the U.S. now that three vaccines have been developed in record time. Other good news is that additional vaccines could be available soon pending Federal Drug Administration emergency use authorization.

While the initial vaccine rollout has been sluggish, efforts are ramping up. This week, President Biden announced that the U.S. is on track to have enough vaccine supply available for every adult by the end of May.  It will take more time for shots to get into arms, but increased efforts are underway to streamline and expedite the process and overcome vaccine hesitancy across the country. New vaccine management guidelines are helping, as are mass vaccination sites that now are up and running.

As vaccines become more widely available, now is the time for employers to develop plans for the role they play in bringing employees back to the workplace safely.

This is a critical issue because the current risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace is significant. A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in early November found that going into the office to work doubles your chances of catching COVID. 

The approved Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines should dramatically improve this risk. But, there is an imperative for employers to think through various scenarios and considerations as they plan for part or all of their employee base to return to the workplace. 

Here are five vaccine management questions for organizations to think through in the short-term – and talk through with company pandemic response team members and employees – when building return to workplace plans and determining how COVID-19 immunizations fit in.

1. Should companies mandate vaccinations for employees?

According to Eagle Hill’s new COVID-19 Vaccines and the Workplace Survey, more than half (52 percent) of employees believe they should. Men (61 percent) had a higher level of support for workplace vaccination requirements than women (42 percent). 

And according to recently-issued U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance, employers can encourage and potentially require COVID-19 vaccinations so long as they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other workplace laws.

Federal law often allows for workplace exemptions to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs or disability concerns, and employers should begin to consider related questions that straddle such legal possibilities, including whether certain employees be exempt from COVID-19 immunizations or if employment be at risk should an employee refuse vaccination.

2. Who will shoulder the cost burden of COVID-19 immunizations?

According to federal government guidelines, initial COVID-19 vaccinations will be free for all Americans. By early indications, private insurers are on board with this approach. According to Anh Nguyen, PhD, a health economics expert and assistant professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, these guidelines prohibit health insurers “whose plans are subjected to the coverage of preventive services without cost-sharing requirement under the Public Health Service Act” from billing patients “for the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine,” by in-network and out-of-network providers. However so-called alternative healthcare plans, e.g. short-term limited duration insurance, are exempt. Some states required alternative plans to cover costs related to COVID-19 testing, and could do the same for immunizations.

However, the question remains – who should cover the cost of employer-required COVID-19 testing? According to our COVID-19 Vaccines and the Workplace Survey, employees believe this burden should fall to employers (45 percent), the federal government (29 percent), insurance providers (15 percent) or state/local government (10 percent), with only two percent saying workers should pay for future required testing. 

Also of interest, 57 percent of U.S. workers believe employers should offer vaccine incentives to employees, like money or paid time off. Incentives could present cost burden to employers, but may drive up vaccination rates. 

3. Aside from the vaccine, what other protective measures should you put in place to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission between employees?

Workers surveyed have definite opinions on this important question. The vast majority of workers want employers to require or encourage:

  • Masks – 62 percent support an employer requirement and 25 percent support employers encouraging mask use.
  • Other personal protective equipment – 35 percent support an employer requirement; 36 percent support employers encouraging use.
  • Social distancing – 50 percent support an employer requirement; 39 percent support employers encouraging distancing.
  • Regular COVID-19 testing – 25 percent support employer mandates; 44 percent support employers encouraging testing.
  • Temperature checks at the workplace – 49 percent of employees support mandates; 32 percent support employers encouraging checks.

4. How are you engaging – and specifically, getting input from – your employees throughout the pandemic and return to workplace process?

Previous Eagle Hill research indicates employees have low trust in their employers to manage through this crisis, a problem that can further hamper an organization’s ability to steer through the pandemic.

For the past 10 months, we have surveyed the workplace sentiments of U.S. employees and what employers could do to make them feel safe in terms of returning to their workplace. Our timeline of employee workplace sentiment is a treasure trove of insight for employers, but it’s no substitute for ongoing employee engagement to gather the concerns and opinions of your own employees. 

Different industries will have different needs, and employees often have differing views than management. When there is meaningful employee engagement, employers may discover new, effective approaches. For example, one area that is ripe for employee engagement is the timing of the return to the workplace. Our recent research finds that many U.S. workers (42 percent) indicate that their employer should wait to re-open until COVID-19 vaccines are more widely available to employees.  

5 .What will the “next normal” of your workplace look like?

Technology’s transformation as we journey into the ‘next normal’ has leapfrogged by years since the pandemic was officially declared.  Studies and estimates show consumer dependence on technology for digital commerce, telehealth services, and remote working has moved ahead by up to eight years. 

Unless you plan for the long-term, your organization runs the risk of defaulting back to the old normal, which could set you back by many years and significantly behind your competition. 

Knowing where you want to get to in the longer-term, and taking a stepwise approach to get there, can move your organization in the right direction. 

2021 is the year of back-to-work, in some form, thanks to vaccines and learnings from 2020. Getting it right is possible and early, careful planning, thorough protective measures and ongoing employee engagement will be fundamental to success.