Should you require your employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination?
Let’s get the big question out of the way first: Can an employer mandate that employees be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus?
Sandy Seay, who is retained by NPMA to provide human resources management for member companies, offers an unequivocal “yes.”
“It is perfectly permissible to require employees to be vaccinated,” Seay said. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has already issued a position statement on that.”
Seay is quick to point out that there are exemptions, such as a religious objection or a physical condition that prohibits the vaccine, though some states may have removed one or both exclusions. It is best to check with local authorities.
But with that big question answered, many more remain. Just because a company can, doesn’t mean they should—at least not with a hammer, Seay said.
“Most of my clients would like to have all of their employees vaccinated. That’s the goal and what most of them wanted to do,” he said. “Some have made it mandatory. Nobody’s called me and said, ‘Someone quit today because they don’t want to take the vaccine.’”
But there is a step before the mandates come. “It would seem better to use powers of persuasion,” Seay said. “You can tell them, ‘It’s healthy for you and the people around you.’ Or, ‘Customers are requiring it or demanding it.’ That will take you a long way.”
In the early days of the vaccine push, some companies—as well as states—used the “carrot” approach and those incentives should not be shelved, Seay believes. “I’m seeing more and more employers who are giving bonuses or extra incentives like an extra day or two of paid time off. Those are the two that I’m seeing the most. A gift card to dinner out doesn’t seem to work as well.”
Using an incentive instead of a requirement can be far more successful—both in the short and long term—as mandates. Some employers have offered a “disincentive,” such as higher costs for health insurance. Seay warns against those, however.
“Incentives like that will get you a long way down the road, and it will identify those who are pushing back,” Seay said. “Meet with them individually; that will get you further. If you have a handful of employees who still won’t take the vaccine, you can make the vaccine a condition of employment if you so choose, but that’s probably not the best alternative. What I’m seeing in most cases is an employer requiring a mask if you’re not vaccinated, along with a weekly COVID test.”
So, what’s an employer’s responsibility on that last point? “If you require an employee to be tested, you have to pay for the time spent taking the test, but not the test itself,” Seay said. “It would be better if you did pay for the test, but companies are not required to. If an employee has to go home to await the test results, or they have to quarantine, that is not compensable work time. But the time waiting in line for the test and for the test to be conducted is paid time.”
While Seay believes some customers have come to expect that their technician is vaccinated, it shouldn’t be a marketing tool. “That gets into privacy issues and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) issues. If the customer asks to have a vaccinated employee come, you can send a vaccinated employee.”
Customer comfort can also be used to convince hesitant employees to get the vaccine, he said.
But ultimately, Seay believes the most persuasive tactic will be an open and honest conversation.
“Whenever there is a void, people tend to fill that with negative thoughts. Most pest companies are small and family owned. You can easily gather your employees and have a conversation.”
He recommends bringing all the team members together to discuss the vaccine well before it’s mandated. “Explain that it’s something we’re all facing and that customers are asking for it. Then tell them, ‘We’d like you to be vaccinated. How do you feel about that?’ Just have an informal conversation about it. That projects good faith and gives employees the chance to look you square in the eye and ask any questions or offer any concerns.”
Asking employees how they feel about the company requiring vaccinations will generate some discussions. “But it also will put some peer pressure on. If you’ve got 25 employees and 23 are vaccinated, they’re going to put some pressure on the other two.”
Once a company has decided to mandate vaccines, Seay suggests writing a formal policy, tacking it to the bulletin board and sending a notice out to each employee informing them of the new policy. Be sure to include an effective date.
Seay said a company can ask—but not require—that an employee show documentation of vaccination status. But don’t save a copy of that anywhere, he said, since personal health information must be guarded carefully.
The decision to require vaccines is not an easy one, but it is one that many company owners are facing. Seay believes there are many more successful tactics to try first.