COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates: What Employees Are Thinking About Return to the Workplace
Update: The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision on Jan. 13, 2022 to stay the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) and lift the stay on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Healthcare Workers Vaccination mandate.
Businesses that have been thinking about mandating vaccinations as employees return to the workplace got a boost when the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lifted the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) on the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
So, where do businesses stand on returning employees to the workplace? The 2021 Paychex Pulse of HR Report found objectives vary by industry; retail wanted to improve morale, computer software/technology wanted to collaborate in person and financial services wanted to increase retention1.
In June 2021, more than half the businesses surveyed (51%) also said they were “very prepared” to return employees to the workplace. However, that wasn’t the same sentiment from some employees, based on more recent research. But, in August 2021, Paychex conducted another survey with Future Workplace, an HR research and advisory firm, to gauge how employees feel about the COVID-19 delta variant and found that 31% have experienced a decreased comfort level with in-person work2.
“While employers may be eager to see employees back in the workplace, surging COVID-19 cases tied to the delta variant are igniting safety concerns for workers, that employers should not ignore,” said Jeanne Meister, an HR expert and managing partner at Future Workplace.
Still, the Paychex and Future Workplace survey found that 46% of employees say their comfort level with in-person work has stayed the same despite the presence of the COVID-19 delta variant. This response should be taken into account, along with generational differences (34% of Gen Z felt increased discomfort, while only 23% of Baby Boomers/Millennials and 20% of Gen X felt more uncomfortable with in-person work)2.
Where does that leave businesses, then? With the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine fully approved by the FDA as of Aug. 23, 2021, employers might feel they have more leverage and less risk of legal exposure if they want to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment.
Businesses should consider how employees might be feeling when it comes to workplace safety and loyalty if establishing a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, as well as what might incentivize employees to stay, and much more. Employers should also remember to comply with federal, state, and local laws related to COVID-19 vaccinations.
Potential Consequences of Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Policy
Mandating COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment could create additional personnel challenges, especially with current labor shortages.
Of the 630 employees surveyed by Paychex and Future Workplace, 24% indicated they would leave their job if mandated to get the COVID-19 vaccine(s). The industries employing the highest percentage of those who would give up their job were financial services and professional services at 29% for each, followed by education (28%). Healthcare workers were the outlier, with only 15% saying they would leave their place of employment as the result of a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy.
Generationally, 31% of Gen Z employees surveyed said a vaccination mandate would cause them to leave their job as compared to 12% of Baby Boomers2.
Incentivizing COVID-19 Vaccination
Policies that encourage vaccination can increase workplace morale and help avoid the pitfalls that can come with a mandatory policy. Employers can encourage vaccinations by creating incentives such as:
- Having a set amount of paid time off for employees who receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
- Providing additional paid leave if employees experience side effects from the vaccine.
- Offering a one-time incentive payment to employees who can prove that they are fully vaccinated.
The Paychex and Future Workplace survey found that the most attractive incentive was a financial bonus (27% overall), followed by additional time off (20%). Gen Z participants led all incentive-based options by decent margins over other generations, including 40% who favored a cash bonus compared to 13% for Baby Boomers. They also preferred more paid time off (32%), having the ability to return to the office, (24%) and having the ability to work from home (21%).
By industry, 40% of employees in financial services desired a bonus, followed by 38% of workers from non-governmental organizations/non-profits, and 34% of those in education. Overall, 37% of those surveyed said they have already been vaccinated and therefore do not need an incentive2.
If implementing any incentive program, employers are encouraged to consult with legal counsel to ensure compliance with all applicable federal, state, and local laws.
Developing a Communications Plan for Your COVID-19 Vaccination Policy
Employers should understand their options for mandating or encouraging employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, and be prepared to answer questions from employees who welcome a vaccination mandate and from those who push back on such a policy. Consider establishing a go-to person who will be tasked with answering employee questions and providing additional resources, if needed.
Once you've established your COVID-19 vaccination policy, employers should be able to clearly communicate why you are implementing that specific policy. When communicating your policy, consider various industry variables, such as improved production.
For example, if your business is looking to improve production, but two employees who do the same job differ on sentiment around a vaccination mandate, there is an opportunity for dialogue to better understand their fears, concerns or reason for acceptance. Employers may wish to provide a training session on COVID-19 vaccinations and safety measures that communicates your policy with employees and addresses their concerns. Such a session also could demonstrate how in-person work could be accomplished to improve production.
And, it's important that businesses comply with any obligations they may have to provide an accommodation related to COVID-19 vaccination. For example, an employee could have a medical condition that would be considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), or a covered condition under state or local laws, that may affect whether they can receive COVID-19 vaccination. In other cases, an employee may have a sincerely held religious belief that prevents them from being vaccinated. In both circumstances, such employees may be eligible for a reasonable accommodation to be able to perform their jobs. Employers should communicate with employees about these accommodations.
Address Concerns and Fears
Our survey found that information sharing is a key concern for employees. They might have concerns about their employer’s COVID-19 vaccination policy and/or workplace safety plan, as well as who will have access to their vaccination information (if proof of vaccination is made part of the policy of returning to the workplace) and how that information will be stored. So, whether you have a COVID-19 vaccination mandate in place or you choose not to mandate vaccination, it's important to be transparent with employees about your policy.
You might consider easing these employee concerns by electing to hold a training session with a medical professional and an individual who handles HR for your business. This session could include a Q&A segment, as well as handouts that provide employees with more information about the vaccine and your policy.
Paychex has taken steps to help by enhancing the functionality of its Document Management tool in Paychex Flex® to include vaccination tracking support. Employers will be able to restrict access and maintain the confidentiality of employee information.
Outline Safety Measures
The Paychex and Future of Work survey found that 41% of employees are currently mandated to wear a mask regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status. The survey also indicated that employees would feel most comfortable conducting work in-person with the following measures in place:
- Mask mandates regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status (30%)
- Distancing requirements at work (29%)
- Temperature checks (27%)
“[With the delta variant] many workers are looking for their employers to prioritize the implementation and communication of workplace safety measures such as masking requirements, physical distancing and proof of COVID-19 vaccination before returning to in-person work,” Meister said.
The Baby Boomers expressed a greater preference for mask mandates regardless of vaccination than Gen X (38% to 30%) and a greater preference for distancing requirements at work than Gen Z (37% to 31%). All generations felt similarly about having regular temperature checks, with Gen Z slightly edging above Baby Boomers (31% to 30%).
The least favored safety measure in the survey was daily health attestations, which was preferred by only 16% of those surveyed2.
Businesses should determine how best to apply guidelines and safety measures in accordance with applicable laws and regulations which, in some states, are industry specific. Survey results reflected that the larger the employee count, the more they had a preference with regards to safety measures. For example, 36% of those who worked in businesses with 250 to 500 employees favored masking regardless of vaccination status as compared to 25% in businesses with 25 to 49 employees2.
As important as it is to comply with legislative and regulatory mandates applicable to your business, it is just as crucial to communicate expectations to employees to help eliminate confusion. When it comes to communicating workplace safety, your plan might include:
- Emailing employees about your expectations for returning to the workplace, including your COVID-19 vaccination policy and additional measures you have taken related to workplace safety.
- Creating signage for use in high-traffic areas and, if possible, an intranet site that helps to reinforce company expectations. Consider using visual examples (e.g., how to wear a mask properly for maximum effectiveness).
Are you in the process or considering bringing your employees back? If so, Paychex offers HR Services supported by dedicated HR professionals who can help your business navigate this challenging time — including incorporating vaccination and safety policies within your employee handbook.
1Pulse of HR Report, “Leading in a New Era: HR Leaders’ Challenges, Priorities and Predictions for the Modern Workplace”, June 2021
2This data is the result of an online survey of 630 full-time employees at businesses with 20 to 500 employees in the U.S fielded from Aug. 11, 2021 through Aug. 15, 2021. This survey is part of a series of research reports administered by Paychex and Future Workplace that will focus on the employee point of view and pinpoint top concerns, priorities, and trends facing the modern workforce.