Federal vaccination requirements for businesses of 100 or more workers are intended to create safer workplace environments for employees and customers. They may also help make meaningful progress in achieving health equity — especially if employers take steps to engage disproportionately impacted communities in their policy planning. That’s because vaccines protect the very people who are most likely to experience the worst COVID-19 outcomes, significantly reducing the likelihood of hospitalization and death. Top officials at the American Civil Liberties Union have said that vaccine requirements are especially important for frontline workers and other people who are regularly exposed to the public in the course of their jobs.
Many companies were quick to require vaccines for their office employees, but didn’t extend those same requirements to retail workers, customer-facing employees, or others required to regularly interact with the public. The federal plan announced last week puts all employees at large companies, regardless of whether they do their job in an office or on an assembly line, on equal footing — which could improve health outcomes for everyone.
As employers consider workplace vaccine requirements, it’s important that they avoid actions that might inadvertently harm workers already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We’ve put together a list of key recommendations to help employers prioritize equity and access in vaccine policy planning.
As you develop or refine your plan, make sure you proactively engage leaders of your company’s employee resource or affinity groups and other employee populations that may have unique questions, concerns or access needs. This isn’t about convincing workers to trust the vaccine; it’s about understanding their perspectives and concerns, and working together to identify solutions. Because some demographic groups face barriers to vaccines, those employees may be negatively and disproportionately impacted by a vaccination requirement.
1. Consider applying a single policy across your workforce.
Having different requirements for different sectors of your workforce — for example, requiring vaccines for employees in the office, but not for those in customer-facing roles — risks creating a tiered system of safety. Especially if workers from disproportionately affected communities predominate in certain roles, employers should strive for a consistent policy that prioritizes everyone’s health and safety.
2. Offer positive incentives before taking punitive actions.
Well-intended “nudges,” such as healthcare plan surcharges on unvaccinated workers, might make health insurance unaffordable for lower-income employees, hourly workers and communities of color. As an alternative, ask workers from hard-hit communities what incentives would encourage them to get vaccinated and offer that instead.
3. Be thoughtful about your messengers and messages.
Cultivate trusted messengers who reflect a diversity of communities and can speak to the unique concerns of affected groups. (This tip sheet can help you source a trusted doctor or community leader). It’s also important to make sure you have messaging and resources in Spanish or other native languages spoken by your workforce. In written communications and in conversation, build trust, express empathy and listen for what’s holding people back then help them find their own reason to get vaccinated.
4. Share stories from like-minded employees who’ve gotten vaccinated.
Invite employees from disproportionately impacted communities who have been vaccinated to share their vaccination experience, as well as stories of how the pandemic may have impacted them and their families. Studies show that people are 40% more likely to get vaccinated if they know a friend or family member who was vaccinated, too, and reassuring stories from peers are almost as important as getting the facts.
5. Provide ample time for workers to get vaccinated, including time that may be needed to learn more about vaccines or get questions answered from a doctor or other trusted source.
Paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from possible side effects — for workers themselves and eligible family members — is one of the most significant barriers to vaccination. Even beyond that, employees may need time or assistance to navigate online portals to book appointments, to arrange travel to/from their vaccine appointment, and to plan for potential vaccine side effects. Some workers may need time to learn more about vaccines, speak with a doctor or other trusted source or consider how they’ll respond to workplace requirements before ultimately getting their shot. And finally, make sure to extend paid time off, incentives and other benefits across your entire workforce, including hourly, seasonal, and part-time workers.