5 Important Ideas: Vaccines in the Workplace
18 months ago, it might have been reasonable to think that the COVID-19 pandemic would last a few weeks (or months at most!). Also, we might have hoped that by staying indoors we would be able to get back to our normal lives shortly thereafter.
We’ve come a long way and our definition of ‘normal’ has certainly changed. We now see that COVID-19 will impact the business decisions we make well into 2022 – and for who knows how long beyond that. Right now, companies of all sizes are wrestling with how to safely return their employees to the workplace – or whether to do so at all.
There are no easy answers. News about the virus keeps changing, and employers – from multinational corporations to the federal and provincial governments – have rolled out policies that, while appearing firm today, may need an update tomorrow.
Given all the change and uncertainty, our outsourced HR professionals compiled 5 key ideas that will help you navigate the uncharted terrain ahead.
- Survey Your Team
We recently looked at the power of employee surveys as a tool to better understanding your team. They can be especially beneficial here, when many of your employees will be understandably nervous or concerned by a barrage of sometimes-conflicting news reports. Some employees may be ready to get out into the world and back into the office, while others will have understandable reservations.
Survey your team members, and do so anonymously. Ask them how they feel, and where their comfort level is with returning to the workplace on either a full time or hybrid basis. Those answers should inform how you draft your policies and your return to work schedule. If a large percentage of your team is ready to return, start looking at a gradual return based on the advice of public health authorities in your area. If your employees are uniformly not ready to go back, you will need to look at options that jointly address their comfort and your business needs.
2. Draft Your Policies Carefully
You’ve likely seen the news about some of the biggest employers instituting ‘mandatory’ vaccination policies. This is often misinterpreted as ‘forced’ vaccination policies, but there are important differences and you may want (or need) to clear the air with your team.
First, any mandatory vaccination policy must take into account the same human rights exemptions as any other workplace policy. The Province of Ontario recently launched firm guidelines as to who would qualify for a medically-based vaccine exemption, and naturally any discrimination for such an exemption is forbidden. Employees may also seek an exemption to such a vaccine policy for religious reasons, which – if granted – would be similarly valid and protected from discrimination.
The other question that will come up in drafting a vaccine policy is what to do with those employees who are unwilling to take the vaccine without a governmentally-validated exemption? Remember that mandatory vaccines do not mean ‘forced’ vaccines; no one can legally hold you down and jab you with a needle.
Employers are in a tough spot as they decide how to handle their unvaccinated workers. In the extreme, it is true of most employees in Ontario that their employment can be terminated at any time – and for any reason – so long as they are paid severance. That said, there are certainly softer and more compassionate approaches available, such as permanent work from home setups or rigourous testing policies. This also allows flexibility for grey areas and cases not covered by our Human Rights Code but that could still merit accommodation.
3. Rights to Privacy
As an employer, the best advice for talking about vaccinations while in the workplace is to be very careful. A person’s vaccination status is private medical information, and employers have a duty not to disclose that to others. So even though it’s become a popular topic of conversation within most of our families and social circles, discussing vaccination status in a workplace can accidentally reveal information about an individual that by all rights should remain private.
Keep your employees’ vaccination status as private and discreet as possible, and strongly encourage them to do the same. Workplaces that have been promoting in advertisements that their teams are fully vaccinated may be well-intentioned, but unless they’ve received permission, they are unknowingly violating their employees’ right to privacy. Do not encourage discussions around sharing everyone’s vaccination status, and remind colleagues why doing so can be problematic.
4. Vaccine Records are not the New Employee Swipe Card
Just as there is no truly mandatory vaccination policy, there is no mandatory unveiling of vaccination status by requiring a record of vaccination to enter the workplace. Ontario does have upcoming regulations for entering some spaces on September 22, 2021, but an individual’s medical information is still private – and they can always opt not to enter.
As a matter of policy, we recommend that employees should not be made to show their vaccine record to enter the workplace through a check-point. There is just too much potential for revealing private information (however inadvertent) and even discrimination. There are other ways to verify entrance eligibility that will reduce risk and observe the right to privacy.
5. Accommodations are not One-Size-Fits-All
Think about how you plan to accommodate employees that are exempt from vaccinations. Will they be allowed to work from home permanently, or will they be allowed back into the workplace but subjected to regular testing? Will accommodations be available to those who are unwilling to take the shot, or will you be terminating those employees? Remember that the former group cannot be terminated for their exemption, but the latter group can while following regular applicable laws.
Working from home may be a reasonable accommodation in some situations, but moving some employees to a permanent work from home while making others return full-time may appear arbitrary to employees and can quickly breed resentment if not handled carefully. A carefully-crafted accommodation policy can help avoid these pitfalls, and a strategic review of the business will help determine exactly which employees are needed physically in the office and when.
If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is! We have never dealt with such a widespread pandemic in this age of technology, and advice can change frequently under new legislation and changes in public health directives.
Whatever happens though, our team is here to help. Our outsourced HR consultants serve as your fractional HR team, and can help guide you through this difficult terrain. Take a look at our calendar below to schedule time for an initial consultation.
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