Can Employers Require the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Jan. 22, 2021
How to prepare your business for the COVID vaccine and some tips to avoid conflict.

Jan. 22, 2021—With the COVID-19 vaccine becoming increasingly available to more of the American public, business owners will soon need a plan of whether or not to require the vaccine and if they require it, how to approach that conversation with their employees.

National Oil and Lube News talked with Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group, about how employers should discuss the topic and what legal rights they have to require it. 

Can employers require their employees to get the vaccine?

Yes. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a ruling in December giving employers the right to mandate the vaccine as long as the employer can prove that the vaccine is necessary to keep their workplace safe.

However, there is a caveat. Employers must also provide reasonable accommodation to employees who have a medical condition or sincerely-held religious beliefs that preclude them from taking the vaccine.

But absent a legitimate medical or religious reason, employers can require the vaccine as a condition of employment.

St. John recommends having a third-party administer the vaccine and make the decision on whether an accommodation is necessary. That way employers can avoid asking invasive medical questions that could lead to an invasion of privacy.

How can operators make the vaccine implementation go smoothly?

This is where it gets more nuanced, says St. John. The most important thing is communication, and St. John recommends bringing in a medical professional to talk through the vaccine with your employees. Employees can ask their questions and can feel assured they are getting their answers from a third-party.

St. John also recommends making it voluntary first. Don’t require it unless it becomes an issue and let the employees be in control of getting the vaccine at the beginning. It may also be helpful for your employees to see that their employers have already received it and they believe in its importance and safety.

Consider paying for the time off that the employer must take to get the vaccine as well as any recovery time they may need if side-effects pop up. Create positive incentives and positive wellness campaigns, if needed. But most importantly, educate them on why it’s important and why you deem it necessary, says St. John. 

How can operators deal with employees who refuse to take it?

If despite all your best efforts, employees still refuse to take the vaccine and do not have a legitimate medical or religious reason, termination might be necessary in order to keep the rest of your work force and customer base safe. 

Understand that if your employees failed to embrace previous COVID-19 measures – like mandating masks, social distancing and proper sanitation – then vaccine implementation could be difficult.

But unlike many other situations during COVID-19, which have required on-the-fly decisions, this decision can be made with ample planning, preparation and education. The sooner you start that, St. John says, the easier smoother it should go.