HomeOpinion & AnalysisCOVID-19: Workplace vaccination policies essential

COVID-19: Workplace vaccination policies essential

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BY EMMANUEL ZVADA

AS COVID-19 vaccinations become available to the general population and more people are getting their shots, many organisations are considering what their vaccination policy needs to be.

On the same note, there is also vaccine hesitancy from the laggards which becomes a major hurdle in the global effort to end this deadly pandemic.

By providing information about COVID-19 vaccination, establishing supportive policies and practices, employers can help increase vaccine uptake among essential workers.

Employer’s role

Generally, all employers have a responsibility for the health and safety of their employees, and it is also in their place to encourage vaccinations to their employees.

By developing a policy on vaccination, it will assist in clarifying the organisation’s stance on vaccination and explain the role of and expectations on managers, human resources and employees.

Organisations should have such policies simply to encourage and support employee vaccination.

Employers can use the policy as a way to educate employees about the importance of COVID-19 vaccination.

A vaccination policy can be part of the overall COVID-19 secure steps towards maximising the number of employees who can attend work
safely.

The main purpose of having such policies is to provide and maintain a workplace that is free of known hazards as well as safeguarding the health of the employees and their families, customers and visitors; and the community at large from infectious diseases such as COVID-19 that may be reduced by vaccination.

Every company needs a policy to guide its operations, strategy, and workflow. Where policies set, the expectation for employee behaviour, the procedures outline the steps for it.

This ensures consistency in practice and helps in maintaining quality output. An effective policy and procedure manual are an essential management tool.

As a piece of required reading for all employees, it states business goals and policies and communicates appropriate standards of action and behaviour for all employees.

Offer options

Avoid taking a disciplinary approach, warning, suspensions, employment termination to employees who refuse to vaccinate. Instead, ensure the policy provides employees who refuse to be vaccinated with options and alternatives.

Employers must consider implementing a voluntary vaccination policy to avoid the legal implications of a mandatory policy. For example, employers will not need to accommodate disability or religious-based objections to a voluntary policy or the consequences of wrongful termination claims.

Employers should seek legal advice in designing legally permissible programmes in the context of a voluntary vaccination policy.

The vaccination policy must also indicate that if the organisation has staff which cannot get vaccinated for health reasons, there maybe need to work out various ways that meets your needs and ensure employee’s safety.

For instance, you could offer them alternative roles that don’t involve daily public dealings or being out in the field.

In the policy, speak to your legal obligation not to discriminate against employees who refuse to receive a COVID-19 vaccination or can’t comply with the policy for valid medical, religious, or other reasons that applicable human rights laws protect.

Alternatively, the employer may design an incentive programme targeted to motivate the unvaccinated portion of the workforce to obtain the vaccine.

What about evidence of being vaccinated

Directing an employee to provide evidence of a medical reason for refusing to be vaccinated is likely to raise privacy issues if not done properly.

Where an employer wants to direct an employee to provide evidence, the employer should make sure that the requirement to provide evidence is also lawful and reasonable.

As stated above, whether a direction would be lawful and reasonable depends on all of the circumstances.

If it is unclear whether a direction or the employee’s refusal is reasonable, employers should not take disciplinary action lightly and should seek legal advice.

Privacy and confidentiality

Medical information is among the most sensitive of all personal information. Emphasise your commitment to keeping all employee medical information, and specifically COVID-19 testing and vaccination records, confidential.

In your policy, also acknowledge your obligation to safeguard the information, and commit to destroying it upon the revocation of the COVID-19 vaccination policy.

If a privacy law applies to your organisation, make sure your policy aligns with your legal obligations and employee rights under it.

In a situation that the employer has provided a lawful and reasonable direction for employees to be vaccinated for coronavirus and an employee complies, the employer could also ask the employee to provide evidence of their vaccination.

The policy should also stipulate that where an employer wants to direct an employee to provide evidence, the employer should make sure that the requirement to provide evidence is also lawful.

As stated above, whether a direction would be lawful and reasonable depends on all of the circumstances. Employers must be mindful to maintain all records regarding employee vaccination status as confidential medical records, separate from personnel files, in locations accessible only to authorised personnel.

Explain consequences for non-compliance

As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic improve, vaccinations become more prevalent, and restrictions eased, you might need to (unilaterally) change the policy to update it upon notification to employees. In the policy, spell out the consequences for employees who don’t comply with the COVID-19 vaccination policy.

Encourage employees to be vaccinated by, for example, giving them access to information and resources to educate them and answer their questions and concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccination.

One of the challenges is that no policy is “one size fits all”, and this is particularly true of a COVID-19 vaccination policy given its invasive nature: context is everything.

So, before you put pen to paper to start drafting your policy, take the time to analyse your context. COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice. You’ll put your business at risk of a lawsuit if you impose a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy at work.

  • Emmanuel Zvada is an award-winning Most Fabulous Global HR Practitioner 2020, HR disrupter and trusted coach. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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