The speed and efficacy with which COVID-19 vaccines have been developed is a testament to human ingenuity and the drive to create a safer world for us all. The three vaccines that are widely available in the U.S. (Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson) have all received emergency authorization by the FDA after demonstrating both efficacy and safety, but there are still some points you may want to consider when deciding on how your company should approach a vaccine policy.

What are my options as an employer?

There are three main courses of action you could take when it comes to employees and vaccines:

  • Do nothing. This means choosing not to implement a company-wide vaccine policy and not advocating for and encouraging vaccinations. Doing nothing may not be the optimal choice from a public health perspective, but it’s certainly a valid one from a legal standpoint. Mandating or incentivizing vaccination could help to reduce increased costs or absenteeism from employees, but it can also expose your company to legal liability depending on how such policies are implemented (and how litigious employees are).
  • Encourage and incentivize vaccination. This is a gentler approach than outright mandating vaccinations as a condition of continued employment. Encouraging employees to get vaccinated is legally safe, although it may run the risk of upsetting employees who don’t believe in vaccination, who have concerns about vaccine safety, who have health considerations that keep them from getting vaccinated or who simply don’t like feeling pressured when it comes to managing their health. Incentives, such as offering paid time off or a bonus to employees who get vaccinated, must be carefully implemented, however. Aside from the cost considerations that comes with bonuses and incentives, you may find yourself legally liable for any issues that arise if you implement on-site vaccinations.
  • Mandate vaccination. This is an aggressive option, but it’s certainly the most effective from the point of prioritizing the health and safety of employees. Mandating that employees get vaccinated is generally legal (although it may not be in some states), but it’s possible that some implementations of such a policy could put you at legal risk (for example, setting up on-site vaccinations or inquiring about employees’ personal health to determine their eligibility for vaccination).

Which employees should get vaccinated first?

Until vaccines become more widely available, it’s best to prioritize employees who are most vulnerable to exposure and at greatest risk of complications from COVID-19. Of course, in health care and senior care industries, everyone with regular contact with the ill and elderly should be vaccinated. Outside of these industries, consider prioritizing:

  • Employees who work in close physical contact
  • Employees who have regular exposure to customers and other members of the public
  • Employees who have regular exposure to heavily trafficked enclosed spaces, food products or other settings where infection may be a risk
  • Employees who are 65 or older
  • Employees who are 16–65 with underlying medical conditions that increase the risk of life-threatening COVID-19 complications

What are the risks of implementing a vaccine policy?

You could get into legal trouble if pre-screening vaccination questions aren’t job-related and consistent with the requirements of your business. To avoid this outcome, make sure that any pre-screening questions are related to the job and that you can prove that unvaccinated employees pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other employees. Similarly, you could get into legal trouble if you attempt to prevent workers’ concerted activity, such as expressing opposition to mandatory vaccines.

Make sure to follow state and local laws, as well. Some locales may have prohibitions against mandating vaccines that aren’t required by state or federal law.

Setting a policy and moving forward

Before settling on the policy that’s best for your company and your employees, there are a few final things to consider.

  • Make sure you follow all federal, state and local laws. You don’t want to put your organization at risk of legal exposure. Do some research to make sure you stay up-to-date on the latest laws and regulations.
  • Get a sense of how employees feel. If you have employees who feel very strongly about vaccines, either adopting a mandatory policy or doing nothing may cause disquiet. Taking surveys of employee sentiments can be a good way to decide how to craft your message.
  • Identify who should be doing the communication. Figures like respected managers, team leaders and union officials can be excellent ambassadors for your company’s policies, especially in larger organizations where employees may not have personal relationships with upper management.
  • Be transparent. As always, communication is key when it comes to rolling out new policies that can affect employees’ work lives. Let employees know both what your COVID-19 vaccine policy is and how that position was reached. Be sure to listen to and address employee concerns, even if your policy remains firm.

Regardless of what policy you decide to implement, wearing masks and respecting social distancing will stay important aspects of infection management. Even as vaccines become more readily available, maintain practices and procedures to minimize the chance of infection and help your entire organization stay healthy.