As the Covid-19 vaccine rollout progresses worldwide, businesses are debating how this will affect the return to the office as well as the health and safety measures that will be required.
Companies are facing a complex task as they begin to design policies to enable staff to the workplace.
While vaccination programmes are a critical step enabling employees to return to work safely, companies preparing for a safe return to the workplace will still need to take into account that protection against Covid-19 will continue to vary for quite some time, perhaps even indefinitely. Vaccination is unlikely to become mandatory for most populations, as this could bring a risk of discrimination claims and could be challenged from a civil liberties and human rights perspective, and employees may refuse (opens a new window) to take the jab for various reasons. In any case no vaccine offers absolute protection (opens a new window). There is no evidence (opens a new window) that any of the current Covid-19 vaccines can completely prevent infection, added to which there is always the risk of mutations reducing the effectiveness.
Some sectors such as hospitality, retail, or the events industry will be particularly keen to have their staff vaccinated to reassure clients that they are offered a safe environment. In sectors with close human interaction, customers may even want assurance that staff is vaccinated before entering a company’s facility.
In December 2020, the National Retail Federation sent a letter (opens a new window) to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, arguing that the nation's 32 million retail workers who are front-line, essential workers should be given early access.
A range of companies in the UK, from care-home operators to large multinational groups are reportedly (opens a new window)considering employment contracts requiring new and existing staff to have vaccinations once Britain’s adult population has been offered jabs.
America’s large corporations reportedly seem keen (opens a new window) to encourage, and not mandate employees to get Covid-19 vaccines to respect the views of those who lack confidence in the new vaccines, avoid liability if there are adverse reactions and not infringe on religious or personal beliefs.
Many of the US companies surveyed in a Wall Street Journal article (opens a new window) want to use a mix of incentives and consequences to ensure that as many workers as possible are inoculated.
Some companies are planning to bar unvaccinated employees from certain activities such as company events that include gathering. More than half of US executives, or 51%, said they will require employees to receive the vaccine before returning to work. This is the result of a recent poll (opens a new window) of 150 C-Suite executives at US companies with at least $250 million in annual revenue conducted by West Monroe, a consulting firm.
Back in November 2020, Alan Joyce, chief executive of Australia’s Qantas airline, said (opens a new window) that he believed vaccinations would become a “necessity” for international travel. United Airlines wants to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for its workforce, as long as it’s not the only company to do so, CEO Scott Kirby told (opens a new window)employees at a virtual meeting on January 21. In the US, airline employees are considered essential workers and are likely to receive the vaccine before many people.
In the UK, Pimlico Plumbers, a large London plumbing company, has announced a “no jab, no job” policy for new recruits. Barchester Healthcare, which runs more than 200 care homes, has also reportedly said that it will not hire new staff who refuse the Covid-19 vaccine on non-medical grounds. Some companies are also reportedly looking at requiring existing employees to have coronavirus jabs.
Joan Harvey, president of care solutions at Evernorth, the health services arm of insurer Cigna, said (opens a new window) she expected some businesses, like events organisers, to require proof of vaccination from their customers, while universities may want it from students, and employers from workers.
There are legal challenges for companies wanting to make vaccines a mandatory requirement for staff. Issues involved include handling of sensitive medical data as well as potential legal challenges on discrimination grounds if workers refused shots for religious reasons, pregnancy or underlying health conditions. If an employee has a bad reaction to a shot required for work, this could trigger liability issues. Other problems may arise if an employer decides to move unvaccinated staff to non-client facing jobs.
The UK’s CBI business group suggested that there was no case for compulsion and that rapid, mass Covid-19 testing was the key to making workplaces safer.
A number of employers in the US plan to provide incentives through employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension accounts (401(k)) or other cash incentives to staff such as gift cards to spend at local businesses. There is also the option to give employees paid time off for the shots. Further, there may be the need for a few sick days after employers receive the jab as they might experience fevers or other side effects.
Dollar General, an American chain of variety stores, plans to reward workers (opens a new window) who get the coronavirus vaccine with four hours of pay after receiving a completed Covid-19 vaccination, for example.
Yogurt and food company Chobani said it will give employees in its manufacturing plants and offices up to six hours of paid time to get the two vaccinations. German retailers like Aldi and Lidl have announced similar plans for extra pay in the US.
What is possible in the US might not work elsewhere. In the UK, for example, offering monetary incentives may be seen as putting those who refuse to be vaccinated at disadvantage, according to (opens a new window) Sinead Casey, a partner at the employment and incentives practice of Linklaters, a law firm. There may be a risk of claims under the Equality Act arising if this sort of incentivisation is adopted.
Large corporations are also considering to offer corporate facilities to public-health officials as vaccine administration sites to make taking the jab convenient for workers. German retailer Aldi is among those that would like to open on-site vaccination clinics at its warehouses and offices to make it easy for workers to get the shots and eliminate the obstacles of getting child care or finding transportation.
It is conceivable that companies may in future be able to purchase the vaccine privately and offer it as a benefit similarly to the flu jab prior to winter. The private sector may even be able to roll-out the programme more effectively. However, at least initially, as many governments have contracted with pharmaceutical companies for the procurement of vaccines, it is expected that governments will control access and prioritization, leaving little room for employer-sponsored vaccination programmes.
Health and technology groups are working together to create a digital vaccination passport in the expectation that governments, airlines and other businesses will require proof that passengers have been vaccinated against Covid-19. The aim is to develop standards to verify whether a person has had their shot and prevent people falsely claiming to be protected against the disease.
Country requirements may evolve over the next months from mandating negative tests to a “hybrid”, accepting either tests or proof of vaccination.
UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said (opens a new window) that the government will not introduce domestic vaccine passports. The idea has raised moral and legal issues also because such passports could lead to discrimination against people who cannot, or will not, receive a Covid-19 jab (opens a new window). More recently, the Prime Minister announced a review (opens a new window) of the proposal, noting that using certificates to allow visits to venues such as pubs and theatres was a "novelty for our country". However, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi mentioned that some companies might press ahead with their own schemes. The use of such documents could be tested in courts.
The UK government has provided funding (opens a new window) for a pilot health passport system to two companies (opens a new window), biometrics firm iProov and cyber security group Mvine. The system will allow thousands of people in two as yet unnamed local authorities to upload their vaccine information to an app, which could then be used by the National Health Service (NHS) or other bodies to check patient records.
"There is an ongoing debate around the legality of steps employers can take where either new recruits or existing staff refuse to take a vaccine as a condition of their employment. It makes sense for employers to analyse each job role, evaluate health and safety risks and seek legal advice prior to considering introducing such clauses. For now, encouraging staff to take the vaccine through awareness campaigns, stressing the benefits of the jab, may be the best approach for all companies." Mark Black, Team Leader Lockton Risk Control Services.
Communication is key
Consider an open conversation with staff about vaccine fears instead of relying only on a top down message approach from the CEO/HR
Try to understand where vaccine fears are coming from
Reasons for vaccine hesitancy may require different approaches
Listen to employees
Consider engaging with the union, creating an employee advisory board
Avoid the term “anti-vaxxer”
Communication should be diverse, ranging from logistical information to addressing those with concerns about the vaccine
Companies are still unsure how to handle staff who object to jabs. Some employers may insist on mandatory vaccines, particularly for jobs requiring a lot of business travel or with close interaction with customers. Nevertheless, testing, social distancing, masks and deep cleaning will certainly continue to be vital for some time to come.
Best practice solutions will take some time to crystallise and may well differ by sector, since mandatory vaccines are likely to be more defensible in some sectors than in others.