To poke or not to poke…
On September 9th, President Biden announced an action plan to combat the current surge in COVID-19 cases. In addition to requiring most federal workers and contractors to get vaccinated with no testing alternative, the plan calls for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to issue a rule mandating that health care workers in most health care facilities get vaccinated. All private-sector employers with more than 100 employees have to vaccinate their employees or have them submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. The costs for non-compliance are steep, with fines of up to $14,000 per violation possible.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is being directed to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to implement this requirement. The growing politicization of vaccinations has put companies at the centre of a squabble that can’t be won. There are those who believe vaccination is strictly a matter of choice, and there are those who believe vaccination is a duty to preserve both individual and public health.
For some workers, even the testing concession will reek of government overreach and an infringement on individual freedoms. But what of the individual freedoms of every other employee? Shouldn’t they have the right to show up every day to a safe working environment? In fact, they do: It’s simply common sense for large companies with teeming workforces – often operating in close confines – to protect their workers’ health.
Nearly one-third of employers are considering making vaccination a requirement to gain access to the workplace, and almost a quarter are planning or considering vaccination as a condition of employment for all employees. Nearly six in 10 track their workers’ vaccination status, and another 19% are planning or considering doing so. A majority (62%) of those require proof of vaccination, while 36% rely on employees to self-report.
Nearly two in 10 organizations offer financial incentives for getting vaccinated, with another 14% planning or considering doing so. Cash payments from $100 to $199 are the most common financial incentive. Only 2% of employers currently offer a discount to vaccinated employees or impose a premium surcharge on unvaccinated employees. Another 18% are considering one or both approaches.
Eight in 10 respondents require employees to wear masks indoors at any location. Another 13% are planning or considering doing so. Three-fourths of employers use workplace exposure tracing to alert employees to potential exposure. Another 8% are planning or considering doing so. Nearly four in 10 employers now expect their organizations won’t reach a new normal in terms of returning to the workplace and ending pandemic-related policies and programs until the second quarter of 2022.
Those who are against getting the vaccine are responding by seeking exemptions from mandatory vaccination based on their religious beliefs. Given the cost of challenging an individual employee’s religious beliefs as well as the need to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act and mitigate risk, an employer’s only reasonable option may be to claim that heeding a request for accommodation would cause it “undue hardship”.
Companies have hoped to avoid alienating workers, some of whom begin looking for other work, quit or even file lawsuits based on their stance against the vaccine. On the other hand, workers upset at the idea of sharing office space with unvaccinated co-workers will hold employers responsible. The result: disgruntled workers, an employee exodus, possible litigation. How does a company satisfy both sides?
One approach threads the needle: Humbly accept Biden’s new corporate policy. Explain, with clear messaging, that while the company is legally bound to follow federal guidelines, workers still have a choice. No one will be forced into vaccination. Although it is encouraged and is understood to be the best defence against further outbreaks and future viral variations, employees’ individual right to choose will be respected.
Employers should also decide who will cover the cost of testing, whether incurring the entire cost, sharing the cost with an employee or placing the full payment responsibility on the employee. The cost for a COVID-19 test is $127. Assume an employer with 125 employees permits 50 of those employees to utilize weekly COVID-19 testing. That could cost the employer’s self-funded group health plan $6,350 per week, or $27,000 per month. A cost of tens of thousands of dollars per month will be an enormous burden for employers.
However, it makes more sense to spend on preventive measures like testing than paying for expenses after getting COVID-19, even in the case that one eventually recovers from it. One also has to take into account the hours of lost productivity and subsequent loss in revenue to the company as a result. Taking all this into consideration, companies would do well to encourage their employees to get vaccinated. After all, health is wealth!