We are in the phase in our national COVID-19 vaccination journey where there are way more people who WANT the vaccine than can currently GET it.  Increased production and distribution is a priority of the new Administration, and we hear more about increasing availability each week.

This week, national pharmacy chains like Walgreens and CVS began offering vaccines to qualified people in 11 states.  The NFL has offered all 30 of its stadiums as mass vaccination locations.  Hopefully, getting the vaccination will soon be as easily accessible as getting a flu shot.

The issue on the horizon is this: Can a business owner require COVID vaccination for employees?

According to guidance released in December by the Employment Opportunity Commission, the answer seems to be “yes.”  Employers can require employees to get immunized with the coronavirus vaccine when it becomes widely available, however, they must be prepared to exempt employees with disabilities and objections based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” In those cases, an employer must offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee—such as working remotely or being reassigned—as long as the accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” for the employer.

Surely, court cases will soon emerge to help us figure out where the lines are.  “Undue hardship” might be one thing for a medical clinic where patient health is the top priority, versus another business where employees are not in close contact with each other or the public. How is an employer expected to judge what is a “sincerely held religious belief” and what is not?

Fortunately, public willingness to trust the vaccine is rising, although wariness is higher in non-white communities. Overall public willingness among Americans currently sits around 75% according to a Pew Research poll published earlier this month.

Essential industries are the first to tackle this problem.  Already we are seeing grocery store chains incentivizing employees to get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available to them. Kroger is offering employees store credit and fuel point incentives to employees who get vaccines.  In their mind, it keeps their workforce and their customers healthier.  Many large employers will probably incentivize immunizations to reward employees who voluntarily step up to be vaccinated in a timely manner, rather than demand and punish those who do not.

Now seems like a good time to do your research and begin conversations with employees.  Do they intend to get vaccinated when they can?  Would incentives push more to do it, and if so, how will you budget for that? Will there be time off for vaccination? And, how will you accommodate those who do not want a vaccine?

Some resources:  NPR “All Things Considered” Podcast, SHRM, Denver Post article, AARP article.