Portrait office employees wearing face mask while social distancing
Employee vaccination mandates remain a new issue, and information continues to evolve as the situation does. It's important to stay up to date on these evolving questions. — Getty Images/ vichie81

Employee vaccinations remain a hot topic in the business community in 2021, as vaccines become more available and COVID-19 patients are hospitalized with variants like Delta.

In an effort to protect employees, their families and business patrons, many companies have adopted vaccination policies for their employees; however, employee vaccination mandates remain a new issue, and information continues to evolve as the situation does.

Below, discover six things you didn’t know about employee vaccines.

Is it legal to require employee vaccinations?

Based on a COVID-19 Action Plan released by President Biden on September 10, 2021, small businesses with 100 or more employees may be required to mandate employee vaccinations, offer paid time off for employees to receive the vaccination, and either require indoor masking or regular COVID-19 testing in the workplace — or both.

It is within any private company’s legal rights to require employee vaccinations, barring specific conflicting circumstances an employee may experience. Organizations usually ask an employee for proof of conflicting circumstances, such as religious or medical reasons, to ascertain the reason an employee is refusing vaccination and to make appropriate accommodations for their needs. Requiring employee vaccinations and asking for proof of vaccination is not a breach of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

For businesses that allow employees to remain unvaccinated, many have chosen to regularly test for COVID-19, enact masking policies, and ensure social distancing. According to Barry Abraham, president and COO at Empowered Diagnostics, testing is a critical element of any workplace COVID prevention plan.

“It is more important than ever for businesses to offer … testing to keep employees safe and prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace – regardless of employees’ vaccination status,” Abraham said.

[Read more: Requiring Employee Vaccinations? Here’s How to Communicate With Your Staff]

Are employees who contracted and recovered from COVID-19 required to get a vaccine?

Employees who have already had COVID-19 should be vaccinated against COVID-19. In fact, research has shown that those who have had COVID-19 before and remain unvaccinated are two times more likely to get COVID-19 again compared to vaccinated people. Contracting and overcoming COVID-19 does not count as a vaccination. Employees who have had COVID-19 should know to receive the vaccine after they have recovered and meet the CDC’s criteria.

What is self-attestation?

Employers have begun relying on employee self-attestation — or employees sharing their vaccination status with their company — to assert who is vaccinated against COVID-19. Self-attestation has become a helpful indicator for organizations to decide their vaccine policies.

Part of the self-attestation process is identifying employees who are unvaccinated and determining whether they have religious or medical reasons for denying the vaccine.

[Read more: Requiring Employee Vaccine Status Self-Attestation? Here’s How to Do It Right]

Vaccination cards are typically printed on thick, index card-like material and not your typical office printer paper. If you see employees trying to pass off a printed slip of paper, give it a good long look.

Janelle Owens, HR director at Test Prep Insight

How do you document a legitimate vaccination exemption?

Legitimate religious exemptions must be “sincerely held” as outlined by Title VII. Medical exemptions are a bit simpler for organizations to approve, as they usually deal with contraindications and severe allergic reactions to the ingredients in a vaccine. Furthermore, immunocompromised patients or people with rare conditions can request a medical exemption if they have severe reactions to all vaccines regardless of ingredients and are otherwise unable to be protected.

Depending on an organization’s policy, employees will document their exemption requests in a self-attestation form. It’s important for organizations to be cautious about asking “why” an employee remains unvaccinated because the question could border on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

How can you spot a fake vaccine card?

Some employees may have an issue with receiving the vaccine outside of medical or religious exemptions and create fake vaccine cards to show employers as proof. While not illegal (unless a federal office seal is used), forging vaccine cards may violate a company’s vaccination mandate and put colleagues at risk for contracting COVID-19.

Janelle Owens, HR director at Test Prep Insight, noted that many vaccination forgeries can be spotted based on the type of paper used.

“Vaccination cards are typically printed on thick, index card-like material and not your typical office printer paper,” Owens told CO—. “If you see employees trying to pass off a printed slip of paper, give it a good long look.”

Owens noted that her company had a vaccine card forgery case in which the dates on the vaccination record didn’t add up to the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule.

“The red flag was the fact that an employee supposedly got their second Pfizer shot just six days after their first dose,” she said. “No real clinic would have delivered such a dose that quickly, and it immediately raised concern.”

[Read more: 3 Incentives to Encourage Employees to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine]

What if an employee participated in a clinical trial and a vaccine other than Johnson & Johnson, Moderna or Pfizer, or received an overseas vaccine, like Sputnik, Sinovac or AstraZeneca?

According to the CDC, 30,000 Americans have been vaccinated with something other than Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna. This may include vaccines used across Europe and Asia, such as the AstraZeneca, Sputnik and Sinovac vaccines, or other vaccines developed for clinical trials.

If an employee at an organization has received one of these vaccines, there may only be one or two active trials that are permissible and are considered effective by the CDC’s standards.

According to the CDC, if a participant in a U.S.-based clinical trial has been documented to have received the full series of an “active” (not placebo) COVID-19 vaccine candidate, and vaccine efficacy has been independently confirmed (e.g., by a data and safety monitoring board), the participant can be considered fully vaccinated two weeks after they completed the vaccine series. Based on these guidelines, individuals who have received a full regimen of the Novavax vaccine are considered fully vaccinated.

“Employers requiring vaccines will need to address any ‘special circumstances’ like foreign vaccines or clinical trials on a case-by-case basis,” added Minesh Patel, CEO and principal attorney of The Patel Firm. “Looking at the stats for each one’s effectiveness can help employers determine whether the next steps need to be taken or employees can work safely within their guidelines with the vaccines they’ve already received.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published September 28, 2021