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Vaccine Acceptance Gap Hits Employers

March 1, 2021
SHRM poll finds nearly one-third of workers don’t want to get vaccinated.

First, there was employers’ immediate concern about how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in the workplace. When would it be safe for employees who got sick or tested positive to return to the worksite and protect their co-workers? Could we come up with an effective vaccine and distribute it throughout the country quickly? Then once vaccines were developed, the challenge arose about how to inoculate a workforce in the face of widespread public resistance to the vaccine.

We have already seen news reports of a disturbing number of people who refuse to get vaccinated. Now an alarmingly high number of employees assert that they have no intention of taking the vaccine, according to a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

According to the survey of human resources professionals and employees in the United States, 60% of workers will probably or definitely get the vaccine once it becomes available to them, while approximately 28% say they would still choose not to get the vaccine, even if it meant losing their jobs.

“HR professionals and organizations will have to factor in measures to account for the potentially large number of unvaccinated workers,” SHRM said.

The report also provides the HR professional and employee perspectives on the vaccine, employer and government incentives to get the vaccine, and how the pandemic has impacted remote work. Findings also highlight contrasting views on considerations that will factor into any return-to-work plan.

Among the observations:

• Over a third of U.S. workers would accept a reduction in salary if it meant they could permanently work from home on a full-time basis (35%).

• 60% of organizations say they will not require the vaccine for employees, and 35% are unsure whether they will require the vaccine for employees.

• At least 74% of organizations that are unsure or not planning to require vaccines for their employees will still encourage their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

• A third of U.S workers believe the COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory for everyone who is able to receive it (33%).

• Most organizations (88%) are unsure or are not offering or planning to offer any incentives to encourage employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“As HR professionals and business leaders look to build a workplace where employees feel safe despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision of when and how to return employees to the office has been a pressing challenge,” SHRM said. “With vaccines for COVID-19 becoming available, business leaders and HR professionals will confront a new set of issues that may make the decision more complicated.”

The survey also examined how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered employees’ thoughts about returning to worksites. Of note, 27% of organizations plan to bring all employees back to a worksite when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available. However, more than half of U.S. workers would choose to permanently work from home on a full-time basis if given the option (52%). Within this group, 45% would accept up to a 5% reduction in salary to work from home on a full-time basis, and 8% would accept up to a 20% reduction or more in their salary.

Potential Financial Firestorm

“Our research shows a stark divide in perceptions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine,” says Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer for SHRM. “We could see a real ‘vaccine vortex’ and a potential financial firestorm impacting employers who need a vaccinated workforce to sustain their enterprises, and those who are likely to avoid the vaccine at all costs. The number of employees who indicate they will not get the vaccine, even at the risk of losing their job, coupled with the large number of employees who said they would be willing to accept a reduction in salary in exchange for permanently working from home, raises a series of important questions for organizations.”

Employers have taken a number of different approaches to persuading their employees to take the vaccine. Many workers have been shocked to learn that under the law it is perfectly legal for their employer to fire them if they refuse to get vaccinated. This is true as long as the employer has a reasonable belief that vaccination is necessary to ensure these workers do not pose a direct threat to the health and safety of themselves or others.

Other organizations have chosen to offer incentives for employees to get vaccinated. According to attorneys who represent employers, employer incentive programs may have run into a roadblock since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced in early February it is holding up proposed wellness regulations it published in January before President Trump left office.

The EEOC has yet to issue clear guidance on how an employer may incentivize vaccination without implicating Americans with Disabilities Act concerns. “EEOC has expressed concern with high-value incentives for vaccination out of concern they may coerce employees into participating in a wellness program, but regulations to that effect have not been issued,” note attorneys Scott Ohnegian, Adam McInerney and Fiona Cousland of the law firm of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti.

“Many employers are proceeding with offering incentives in the absence of any clear prohibition on doing so, typically for modest dollar amounts or simply by providing employees with extra paid time off to accommodate scheduling the vaccine,” they point out.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president of SHRM, observes, “While 60% of organizations say they will not require the vaccination, I believe we will see employers strongly encourage vaccination in a broad range of enterprises and even consider offering employee incentives. Creating a safe workplace will be a collaborative effort between HR, business leaders and employees.”

The issues raised by the survey will need to be addressed by employers and their HR professionals before businesses will ever be able to get back to normal, Taylor stresses.

“Returning to the worksite once a vaccine became widely available was always going to be a complex effort, and the way organizations and employees handle questions about the vaccine will have a profound impact beyond the current public health crisis,” he said. “With this in mind, HR will manage a truly challenging situation as they contemplate: How do we safely bring people back to work, and who is coming back to the workplace?”

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