iQ Interview Series: Emily Marr on Employee Communications During the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

January 13, 2021
By iQ Staff
Illustration of a healthcare professional administering a vaccine to a woman.

For some companies, a fully vaccinated workforce may be the only solution until the pandemic is controlled. Employers should start thinking about company policies and how they will be communicated. Will you mandate vaccinations? Will you take a voluntary approach? How will you maintain safety when more employees return to the workplace, especially when some workers may be skeptical about the vaccine?

As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, employers will play an important role in facilitating and promoting safer workplaces and communities through vaccination. We spoke with Emily Marr, assistant general counsel at Hawaii Employers Council, about the responsibilities that employers have in this effort. She identified preliminary communications guidelines as companies consider what to do.

 

Communicate your policy

Recent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) clarifies that employers can mandate that employees get vaccinated, subject to certain exceptions such as a disability or religious exemption. Each employer needs to confer with legal counsel and adopt the approach that works best for their needs.

Based on what is currently known, employers that implement a mandatory vaccination policy will face more onerous practical and legal considerations than those that adopt a voluntary approach. Whichever path is chosen, one thing remains the same: employee communication will be crucial. After a company determines its stance on vaccinations (mandatory or voluntary), it should disseminate its decision proactively. Doing so will preempt confusion and speculation, and employees will benefit from understanding the company’s position and rationale.

 

As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, employers will play an important role in facilitating and promoting safer workplaces and communities through vaccination.

 

Be a thought leader and information source

Employers have a special leadership role to play in the larger community as economic contributors, thought leaders, and models of behavior. They can influence others and have a positive impact through their own vaccination communications.

Employers can educate employees and their families about the benefits of getting vaccinated, and should develop communications that provide clear information, including about potential side effects, safety, efficacy and protocols. In addition, they can share up-to-date information about local plans for vaccine rollouts and should stay current by opting in to receive updates from local officials and government agencies.

Another option that employers might explore is hosting a COVID vaccination clinic, similar to a flu-shot clinic, where employees can get vaccinated and also learn more information.

 

If you’re offering incentives, spread the word

Employers that choose to go the “voluntary” route can legally incentivize employees to get vaccinated. Both financial and in-kind incentives are legally permissible. The policies on incentives must be clearly established and concisely communicated so that they are awarded fairly. To the extent such incentives are part of a “wellness program,” employers should keep in mind EEOC, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Affordable Care Act (ACA) rules on wellness program incentives, all of which are designed to ensure that incentives do not rise to the level of coercion.

 

Final thoughts

Employers will inevitably have to take a stance on COVID-19 vaccinations for their workforce. The earlier companies can decide their approach, confer with legal counsel and develop communications plans, the better prepared they will be when the vaccine becomes more widely available.