Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The decision may reduce vaccine hesitancy, but many businesses across Colorado continue to grapple with whether to require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccination.
The highly contagious Delta variant has fueled a recent rise in COVID-19 cases across the state. Positive test rates have hit a three-month high, and one-third of eligible Coloradans remain unvaccinated.
The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment projects hospitalizations will rise, but one thing could make a difference. “If we reach an 80 percent vaccination rate among adults, we could significantly reduce that [hospitalization] rate,” the department noted in a recent blog post.
As an employer, you can help protect Coloradans by preventing the spread of COVID-19. Though the state has introduced an incentive program to encourage vaccination, the business community may be better positioned to help raise vaccination levels through mandates.
Employers can help society and the economy at large in ways politicians often find more difficult to accomplish. Such business leadership is vital because more COVID-19 variants are likely to emerge. Experts believe that the virus is now endemic and will stay with us for years to come. Vaccines will be key to fighting infection into the indefinite future, so there is value in helping your employees understand this sooner rather than later.
“The pandemic has been extremely disruptive for businesses, and they have a key role to play in addressing the challenges emerging from the pandemic by considering vaccine mandates,” says Pinnacol Senior Medical Director Tom Denberg, M.D. “Vaccines are far and away the best thing that we can do to get through this. They’re very safe and very effective, and they are the best way to prevent hospitalization and death from COVID.”
As businesses consider their options, we’re sharing how Pinnacol is addressing the vital issue of requiring vaccinations for workers and how businesses can go about implementing vaccine mandates.
As an insurer focused on managing risk, Pinnacol is dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our employees and our community. We recently rolled out a policy requiring full vaccination for any employees working in our building, attending in-person meetings or events, conducting field visits, or traveling for work. The requirement also stands for guests at events we host.
“We hope that our action will set an example for employers that are navigating these difficult decisions,” says Pinnacol Chief Executive Officer Phil Kalin. “We would like to see others in the business community take similar steps so we can have safer workplaces and move our economy and community beyond pandemic challenges.”
Pinnacol employees whose jobs do not require them to be in the building or in the field continue to have the choice to work remotely. The policy is perhaps most challenging for employees whose jobs require them to meet with customers and other stakeholders in person. It’s forced some difficult conversations.
Kalin says, “Each and every one of our team members is an empathetic professional, and those who have chosen not to be vaccinated have reasons for that choice. But as an insurer whose business is managing risk, it would be irresponsible for us not to safeguard the health of our team members and our customers.”
Denberg also acknowledges that businesses face tough decisions as they weigh vaccine mandates. “It’s not just a yes or no. Businesses have a variety of different things they have to think about,” he says. Taking small steps to start, and offering choices, may help employees embrace the changes faster.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance months ago stating that “laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, so long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other EEO considerations.” Denberg notes that, so far, the courts have upheld vaccine mandates.
There are two principal alternatives to vaccination. One is to allow for continued remote work if this is feasible. The other is to require mask-wearing, social distancing and taking regular COVID-19 tests (the common recommendation is at least twice weekly). The burden associated with the latter option can drive vaccine-hesitant employees to the simpler option of getting vaccinated, and the recent FDA decision could also change the minds of workers who had cited lack of full approval for not getting vaccinated.
Denberg notes that a buildup strategy works well to begin with, but the ultimate goal is steering employees toward vaccination.
“Alternatives can be logistically more difficult to administer, as well as costly, and they delay what is most important — getting vaccines,” he says.
The peer pressure and politicization of vaccinations could make a vaccine mandate a relief for some vaccine-hesitant employees. “If they can just say, ‘Oh, my employer says I have to do it,’ it takes some of the burden off them,” Denberg says.
Not everyone will be happy with your decision, wherever you land. Some workers may try to avoid a mandate. “You’re required to allow exemptions for medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs,” Denberg says. Making the decision more challenging, businesses understand they could risk losing key employees if they push too hard on vaccination amid a labor shortage in Colorado and across the country.
All categories of employees should be treated the same within your policy. It should apply to everyone, regardless of managerial status or time with the company. Denberg says making exceptions that are not due to religious beliefs or legitimate medical issues will only cause problems down the road as employees become frustrated by perceived inequities in how rules are enforced.
“The CEOs of large and small businesses must also act as civic leaders and community stewards. By imposing vaccine mandates, they can help manage risk and lead the state out of COVID,” Kalin says.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Please consult your attorney for advice on the application of the law to the specific facts of your case or legal problem.