Protecting Workers: Can You Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines in the Workplace?

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Humanity should thank the cows and the bravado of a legendary English doctor for vaccines. Some would say the methods used to arrive at the vaccine were crude — if not totally contemptuous. But it served the purpose and hundreds, if not millions, of people on the planet.

Much like today, humanity was staring at death in the eye in the 1800s. Smallpox ravaged nations around the world. It was a horrible disease. You’ll literally get ugly contracting it, with some infected patients choosing suicide to escape the shame. Not only do you feel sick (e.g, high fever, headache, sore throat), but pus-filled pustules would spread all over your body scarring you for life. It’s estimated 400,000 people perished yearly. And that’s in Europe alone.

But Dr. Edward Jenner, haunted by his own traumatic childhood experience, decided to take matters into his hands. Specifically, he took pus from cowpox lesions (cowpox is a milder form of the disease affecting cows) and introduced it into a young boy via the skin. Cowpox may have caused a mild illness in the boy after but it saved him from deadly smallpox forever. And the rest is history.

Today, there’s a lot of back-and-forth regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. Unlike Dr. Jenner’s crude process, you have an army of scientists and clinical trials that support today’s vaccines. Better yet, they’re FDA-approved.

If you’ve been wondering about the legal implications of a vaccine mandate for your business, fret not. We’re giving you expert takeaways to move your organization forward, protect your employees and improve your bottom line.


Are Vaccine Mandates Legal?

With a killer virus at large, it’s definitely logical on your part to require vaccines in the workplace. After all, anyone who catches the virus can surely put your operation in jeopardy. But the question that’s bogging you right now could be: Is it legal?

The quick answer for that is yes, though some limitations do apply.

A University of California (Hastings College of Law) professor, Doris Reiss points out that employers both in the public and private sectors have the right to set safety conditions for their workplaces. Plus, they’re duty-bound to protect their employees.

True enough, the federal government has set things in motion requiring its employees to get vaccinated. Local and federal governments that do so include:

  • New York
  • California
  • Department of Veteran’s Affairs

Not to be outdone, private companies such as Google and Facebook, are also putting in place vaccine rules for returning employees. Some employers do not even require proof; a self-attestation is enough to get things going.

Others require people who prefer not to get the vaccine to do weekly coronavirus testings. Experts detail that offering an alternative solution to those people who fear inoculation could be a good strategic move at this point. Though it may be legal not to offer an opt-out, you won’t have to deal with exemptions of the mandate (e.g., religious, disability) when you offer one.

How About the Limitations?

Take note that even with the vaccines in place, there’s a possibility that people could still get the virus. Like the Dr. Jenner experiment on the child centuries ago, the risks of being hospitalized and dying for a fully vaccinated worker are greatly reduced. On your part, having a contingency plan should any of your employees get sick is wise.

Without a comprehensive plan, your business could fall hard in cases of infection. It’s also the reason why tapping into an integrated healthcare software can go a long way in providing needed care for your sick workers. Cloud-based and mobile-ready, such technology allows caregivers and responders easy access to patient data and when need be, timely consent to facilitate seamless flow of care.

As for limitations, Reiss cites three possible limitations for vaccine mandates in the workplace. These are:

  • On religious grounds
  • On a disability
  • A union agreement

As you may know by now, legal has its own set of complexities so it’s best you deal with employees on a case-to-case basis.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s the right of an individual to protest and refuse a workplace mandate if it’s contrary to his religious belief. This is a sticky scenario so you’ll have to look into the details. A good example here is the wearing of the hijab for Muslim women in the workplace.

Secondly, under the American Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), a workplace must not pose “undue hardship” to workers while working. So, if someone is allergic to vaccines (e.g., COVID-19), you may be held liable if you do not accommodate such an employee.

Last but not least, if your workforce has a union and a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is in place, vaccine mandates may need to be discussed and agreed upon before being enforced.

It’s an uphill climb, on one end. But making sure your workers are safe and sound is a task worth taking. A healthy workforce is necessary to grow a business by leaps and bounds.

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