Tips for Managing a Partially Vaccinated Workforce

If you have employees who are and aren’t vaccinated, here are some factors to consider and actions you can take.

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Last month, the CDC expanded its authorization of booster shots for recipients of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Those who are over 65, who are over 18 and meet certain requirements, and who got their first jab 6 months ago are now eligible for boosters. Boosters are already approved for Johnson & Johnson recipients who are 18 and older and who got their shots 2 or more months ago. So, booster recommendations are now in place for all 3 of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States.

Even though nearly 3 million Americans have already gotten a booster shot, just 57.4% of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated. This means that there are undoubtedly many businesses across the country that are managing a partially vaccinated workforce.

The pandemic itself has been an unprecedented challenge for the modern workforce to grapple with. On top of that, vaccination in the United States has become entangled with everything from misinformation to personal, religious, and medical choices and beliefs. These topics that many strive to shy away from in professional settings are now front and center in the work world. This has been especially true since the federal government enacted vaccine mandates or weekly COVID-19 testing for companies with 100 employees or more — which is set to start in January 2022.

If you’re one of many companies trying to figure out how to balance everything, there are indeed many variables to consider. Here are a few of the main ones you won’t want to miss.

Work towards a fully vaccinated workforce

As the Health Action Alliance explains, “a fully vaccinated workforce creates the safest possible environment for employees and customers. This is true, they say, because “infections happen in only a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated, even with the Delta variant. When these infections do occur among vaccinated people, they tend to be mild.”

The reality is that — when it comes to managing a partially vaccinated workforce — the best thing you can try to do is get everyone at your company vaccinated. This makes work safer for everyone from your workers to your customers. This approach also ensures that you’re compliant with President Joe Biden’s vaccination requirements if your company has 100 employees or more. Plus, if those requirements shift down the line to apply to smaller companies or all companies, you’ll be ahead of the scramble that will surely follow.

A way to encourage your employees get a vaccine is by providing them with reliable and scientific resources about vaccinations. Source information from sources like government institutions such as the CDC or respected private-sector sources like Johns Hopkins.

A way to encourage your employees get a vaccine is by providing them with reliable and scientific resources about vaccinations.

The Health Action Alliances has a wealth of resources for businesses that are looking to spearhead vaccination education within their companies. As they explain, “new research suggests that Americans trust their employers more than they trust government leaders, community leaders, and even religious leaders.” Employers clearly have an important role to play.

Understand why some people resist vaccination

As you endeavor into providing information about vaccines, first you’ll need to understand the different reasons people have for resisting vaccination. An individual hesitation to COVID-19 vaccination is as varied as each individual’s human experience.

Members of Black and African American communities might view the vaccine as an extension of the government and larger healthcare industry that has betrayed them in the past. (See the Tuskegee experiments and the story of Henrietta Lacks’ “immortal” cells). Enlist the diversity, equity, and inclusion specialists at your company or make the most of the Alliance’s DEI resources in order to ensure that the information you share is as culturally relevant as possible.

Build off of that information by making it as easy and seamless as possible for your workers to get a vaccination. Incentives are a great option. Consider offering cash incentives for a completed vaccination or give them the day or afternoon off when they get their individual doses.

You can also host a vaccination clinic at your business. The CDC even has guidelines for how to best do that in conjunction with vaccination coordinators or supervisors. If this is something you have interest in, start by contacting your state or local public health department for assistance and information.

One of the best things to do to prepare yourself for managing a partially vaccinated workforce is having a clear understanding of the legality surrounding COVID-19 and the workplace.

One of the best things to do to prepare yourself for managing a partially vaccinated workforce is having a clear understanding of the legality surrounding COVID-19 and the workplace.

Chances are you’re going to encounter employees who have incorrect information, but are under the impression that they’re right. This could include contrasting understandings of what companies can and can’t require or inquire about.

If you’re able to seek legal counsel in order to get information that is tailored to your specific company and all federal, state, and local laws that apply to it, that’s great. If not, you’ll want to gather information on rules and regulations at all levels of government so that you know exactly where your legal boundaries are.

Check out the EEOC guidelines

One of the best places to start your research is with the information that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has published. The EEOC outlines that:

  • If an employee calls in sick during the pandemic, you can ask whether or not they’re experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19. These symptoms include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, and sore throat. It’s important to note that you must keep all of this information in a confidential medical record in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Employers can generally measure their employee’s temperature during the pandemic.
  • Employers can require that employees with COVID-19 symptoms stay home from the office. You can also require that they provide a doctor’s note or information from other health-related agencies that attests to their medical fitness for return to the office.
  • Organizations can screen employees for COVID-19 as long as it relates to their job and is consistent with business necessity. You’re not, however, allowed to require antibody tests.
  • In general, the ADA does not interfere with CDC guidance on COVID-19.
  • Employers can ask employees who are entering a physical work space whether or not they have COVID-19 symptoms or have been tested for COVID-19.
  • Employers can exclude employees who have COVID-19 or its symptoms from the physical workplace.

Create transparent policies and procedures that you tailor to your specific business

From tracking proof of employee vaccination to configuring shared office space and much in between, there’s a lot to consider.

It can be tempting to simply follow what other businesses are doing. But one of the best things you can do is create your own policies and procedures that meet the specific needs of your business. If your employees are working remotely and it’s no problem to keep it that way, figuring out office space for a partially vaccinated workforce is a very low priority.

If you already have people back at the office, then setting up in-office policies and procedures is high priority. This is especially important if you have workers in customer-facing roles.

Whatever it is that you decide, the key is transparency. This is a confusing time for everyone. As variants multiply and situations change, the best thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open.

Share what metrics you’re tracking for making decisions around returning to the office, for example. Clearly outline any vaccination requirements and timelines associated with it. For those who cannot receive a vaccine, explain what accommodations are available and connect them with someone who can help implement them.

You’ll also want to consider policies for hiring in the time of COVID-19. If you’re going to require that all new hires who are able to get a vaccine have to receive one, you’ll want to make that clear to all applicants. You can state this in a job description, during an initial call, or in an early interview. The thing to avoid is letting a candidate get too far down the pipeline before making them aware of your vaccination requirement, should you have one.

Dealing with non-compliant colleagues or customers

Another element to consider in your policies and procedures is what to do about non-compliant colleagues or customers. There is always going to be someone who is ready and willing to buck the rules. Make sure that your workers are ready for these situations by letting them know what you expect of them and what resources are available to them.

If you have a zero-tolerance policy for non-compliance with your company’s mask requirements, outline what you expect your workers to do about that. Consider how the procedure will vary for internal situations with co-workers and externally ones with customers.

In order to avoid any potential interpersonal conflicts internally, it’s likely best to have anyone concerned with a co-worker go to their manager rather than the person directly. That way you can avoid potential conflicts over belief systems between coworkers.

Externally, you’ll want to outline what employees should do with non-compliant customers. Should they first gently remind customers about the mask requirement? Then ask them to properly wear it? If the customer remains noncompliant, should they ask them to leave on their own or get a manager? At what point are the police or outside resources called?

You should think through and clearly document processes for potential scenarios like this. This way everyone knows what to do when uncomfortable situations arise.

Prepare for and offer reasonable accommodations

One of the best things you can do to keep your workforce safe is to treat all employees like they’re unvaccinated. This is especially important if your business is open to the public and has an in-person customer element.

You may never know which customers are and aren’t vaccinated. You can’t control that, but you can control what you do to keep your employees safe. Many businesses are still requiring people to wear masks or other face coverings inside, regardless of federal, state, or local guidance.

Especially since you likely have PPE, why not continue using it or at least make it available to those who would like to use it? Keep a box of disposable masks around so that people can wear them if they forget theirs. Why not create a couple of cubicles that you surround with plexiglass for those who aren’t quite ready to work face to face again? It’s almost always better to err on the side of safety.

Making accommodations

In addition to what you offer your partially vaccinated workforce at large, you have to make accommodations for those who are unable to get vaccinated. The thing to remember is that there is a difference between employees who are choosing to remain unvaccinated and those who — for legitimate medical or religious reasons — cannot be vaccinated.

For those who can receive a vaccination, it’s generally legal to make vaccination a requirement of employment. For those who can’t, though, you’ll need to make reasonable accommodations. The EEOC has said that reasonable accommodations typically include requiring them to wear a face covering, using plexiglass barriers when they’re in the office, requiring periodic COVID-19 testing, and requiring that they work remotely.

These are, of course, general guidelines from the EEOC. It’s far from a comprehensive list. If you have questions about what exactly you can and can’t do as an employer, look to local public health agencies and organizations. At the very least, they will likely be able to connect you to the people and resources necessary to chart out the best path forward.

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