Person getting a vaccination from a doctor.
With the current threat of the Delta variant and the ramifications it could have for business, many organizations are choosing to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among employees. — Getty Images/Geber86

Updated 9/10/21

Small businesses with 100 employees or more may soon be required to mandate employee vaccines. That’s the top take away from President Biden’s newly released COVID-19 Action Plan. If the new rules are enacted businesses could also be required to provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated. These orders are expected to be challenged but if enacted could take effect within a few weeks. The administration is also requiring that federal workers and employees of federal government contractors be vaccinated.

For more information on how to help get your employees vaccinated check out the U.S. Chamber Foundation's downloadable Employee Vaccination Guide.

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Science and health experts have indicated that widespread vaccination is the only way to achieve herd immunity and effectively end the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers can play a role by promoting vaccination in the workplace, but is it legal to mandate employees to receive the vaccine?

Here’s what you need to know if you are considering a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for your workforce.

Why does employee vaccination matter?

The COVID-19 vaccine has been scientifically proven to be safe and effective in combating and reducing the impact of the coronavirus, including the Delta variant. Ensuring your workforce is vaccinated is important so everyone feels safe and there is a standard level of health across your office and entire company.

If everyone in your office is vaccinated, then they can work closely together—possibly unmasked, depending on local regulations—and with minimal risk of contracting a case of COVID-19 and spreading it to others. In turn, this helps your company return to a state of normalcy and help get the economy back on track while also looking out for the well-being of your workers and their loved ones at home.

Here is a basic overview of how you can legally require employees to get vaccinated.

Can you mandate employee vaccinations?

Yes, it is within a company's legal rights to require their in-person employees to get vaccinated, barring any conflicting circumstances like certain medical conditions or religious beliefs. If an employee refuses to get vaccinated because of a disability or religious belief, they may be entitled to accommodation for the mandate.

Many federal and state employees are now required to show proof of vaccination under new guidelines enacted by President Biden in July. Those who do not will have to follow strict restrictions such as mandatory masking, weekly testing and social distancing.

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

Up until recently, most major corporations have not invoked this right, making vaccination a personal choice for their employees. However, given the threat of the Delta variant and the ramifications it could have for business, many organizations are rethinking their approach. For instance, some of the nation’s largest employers, such as Walmart, The Walt Disney Company, Google and Facebook are requiring that at least some of their employees get vaccinated.

Contrary to some misconceptions, asking for proof of vaccination is not a HIPAA violation. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), passed in 1996, stipulates that healthcare providers, insurers and any other entities with access to patients’ private medical information cannot share that information with their employer. HIPAA has no impact on employers mandating vaccines, nor does it bar them from asking their employees medical questions (which employees have the right not to answer).

With all the conflicting information out there about COVID-19 vaccines, some employees might feel hesitant to receive one. It may help to invite a medical professional to sit down with your team to go over the benefits of the vaccines and why they are safe.

Can you mandate while the vaccine is still under emergency use authorization?

The current coronavirus vaccines have only been granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, they are expected to be fully approved soon, and the Justice Department stated that federal laws do not prohibit businesses from requiring vaccination, even if they only have been granted emergency use approval.

How to mandate employee vaccinations

If your company is considering mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for your employees, here are some ways to help communicate this requirement.

Offer incentives to encourage vaccination

To encourage employees who are hesitant to get vaccinated, some companies have incentivized vaccination for their staff.

Major corporations such as Target, American Airlines and Marriott have offered incentives to increase the vaccination rate, including one-time cash incentives to any employee who receives both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Others have offered paid time off for employees for the time they need to travel to get vaccinated, the vaccination itself and any time they may need to recover afterwards. Small businesses with less than 500 employees can also apply for a tax credit that provides full pay for employees who get vaccinated.

Offering incentives can be a great first step for a company that wants to require vaccines. It allows them to still make their own decision without feeling forced to get vaccinated, while providing them with some sort of benefit should they choose to do so.

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

Explain why you're mandating vaccinations

With all the conflicting information out there about COVID-19 vaccines, some employees might feel hesitant to receive one. It may help to invite a medical professional to sit down with your team to go over the benefits of the vaccines and why they are safe. Encourage your employees to ask them any questions and have a discussion about why they may be hesitant.

During this conversation, employers can explain to their staff why it's important that they're mandating vaccines, thoroughly review the health and safety reasons behind the decision, and reiterate the benefits of having a fully-vaccinated office, or “COVID Safe Zone.”

Discuss the consequences of noncompliance

Mandating employee vaccination should be treated like any other corporate policy your company holds. If employees refuse to follow it, clearly explain the consequences of their actions. If they are not compliant with this new policy (and do not have a valid reason for an exemption), let them know that it may impact their ability to come into the workplace or even be grounds for disciplinary action.

Offer support and accommodations to those with medical conditions or other concerns

Employees who have not yet gotten vaccinated for COVID-19 likely have a reason for doing so. Before your company enforces a mandate, sit down and talk with these individuals about their concerns. Provide resources and educational materials to help them learn about the science behind the vaccines and why the company is mandating them.

For employees with medical conditions, talk to them and see how you can make accommodations for them within the office. Employees with certain disabilities and autoimmune conditions can be exempt from any employee mandate. If that's the case, work with them to help support their needs on how you can make the office safe for them as well.

[Read more: 9 Lasting Changes Small Businesses Can Expect Post-Pandemic]

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 August 06, 2021