Vaccines for COVID-19 are here. What can employers do now?

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With several vaccines approved, the new year started with a significant dose of optimism. Yet, it is already clear that 2021 will not be a walk in the park. For now, governments are taking the primary role in vaccine deployment but companies will need to prepare as new information emerges. Organizations will need to think strategically about the implications for business operations. And the imperative to be a responsible employer requires companies to think hard about how to support vaccination plans.

Here are seven priorities for employers to consider now vaccines are here.

1. Prepare the employer’s role now. Vaccine deployment is a fast-moving target and while governments are taking the lead today, organizations can still prepare plans – even if those plans will need to evolve rapidly. Consider creating a committee to develop the company’s vaccination strategy and to understand the business issues likely to arise. For example, will you support employees in getting the vaccine? And if so, how – by offering paid time off for vaccinations or paid sick leave to recover from any side effects, for example? How will you respond to colleagues in a people-facing role who don’t wish to take a vaccine? A vaccination committee would likely include representatives from HR/ benefits, risk management, legal and communications departments.

2. Prioritize health education. The employer’s role in communicating and educating employees about their health and safety cannot be underestimated. Employers can encourage employees to get vaccinated by issuing reliable information — content from public health announcements and trusted websites – on a regular basis. Employers can also lead by example by having senior managers in the organization share their vaccination experiences. Consider a spot survey of your employee population to ascertain vaccine receptivity, and use those results to develop a communication campaign.

3. Define your critical workforce. Just as countries are prioritizing vaccine deployment for certain population segments, organizations can clarify now which segments of their flexible, blended workforce need to get the vaccine first. Who is critical to the success of the business and where are they located? Who is more exposed or vulnerable to the coronavirus? Defining the company’s critical or essential workforce is where HR can play a key role to ensure business resilience and success.

4. Focus on health equity. The good news is that vaccines have been developed at record speed. The bad news is that there will be many people excluded from receiving one – at least in the near to medium term.

  • Access is a key consideration. Healthy, younger workers will be low on the priority list. What does this mean for business resilience if the majority of your workforce fall into this category? And what about those without insurance, such as gig workers? Few companies are looking at benefits for gig or contract workers today. Providing convenient access to services could be an area for investment.
  • Affordability is another question to consider, and prepare for, now. In the US, for instance, coronavirus relief enacted in March 2020 requires group health plans and issuers to cover COVID-19 vaccines without cost sharing (such as a co-payment or deductible). However, where the vaccine is not covered by health insurance or through the public health system, employers may need to step in to pay for it fully, partially, or not at all. How does your health plan and insurance need to evolve to protect your people and their families?

5. Think about privacy. Depending on the strategy, employers may need to track and monitor which employees have completed the vaccination process and ensure personal data protections are in place. In the US, the ADA requires employers to keep vaccination information confidential, and state privacy laws may be implicated as well.  Already, leading firms are deploying tools to track employees’ health to reignite economic activity while being conscious of the need to balance concerns about personal data exploitation and the slippery slope of surveillance. Responsible employers will make a difference by taking the lead and innovating in the way they protect their workforce and their communities.

6. Consider the un-vaccinated. Not all employees will want – or be able – to receive a vaccine for medical or personal reasons, raising thorny questions for the business and employment, labor and human rights issues where the law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For instance, will vaccination be required for business travel or for certain types of work (e.g., with direct customer contact)? In the US, those with disabilities and sincerely-held religious beliefs have specific protections under the ADA, and need to be provided special consideration, for example.

  • Ensuring other precautions remain in place will be vital for everyone’s safety, such as wearing masks, social distancing and temperature screening employees.
  • Accommodating employee needs and preferences will require companies to implement flexibility for all. All jobs can flex in some way – the challenge is identifying how certain jobs can flex productively for the business and the individual, and building the culture that supports blended models. This can be done by assessing what flexibility is possible, what is desirable, and the people processes to sustain it at scale.

7.  Put mental health on the agenda. COVID-19 is taking its toll on mental health and emotional wellbeing worldwide. Securing the workforce’s mental health will require employers to deploy a range of strategies and tools to empower workers to take better care of themselves and seek support. And certain populations may feel the strain more than others. Mitigating people risks in the current system will require organizations to deploy creative ideas to support working parents during the caregiver crisis, and to explore sabbaticals and rest periods.

Given the complexity of rolling out a mass vaccination program, the spread of new coronavirus strains, and renewed movement restrictions, 2021’s prospects are already looking as uncertain as those of 2020. How are you preparing for inoculations? Take Mercer’s employer survey and find out what companies are doing to support the delivery of vaccines. Vaccines can provide the springboard from which organizations build the new shape of work, but only if employers prepare now.

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