The best advice to employers may be to encourage, not mandate, COVID-19 vaccines. Workplace vaccination is a matter of compliance (with health and safety and other legal requirements to keep workplaces safe) and risk management (mitigating the risk that outbreaks could disrupt business continuity). But vaccination raises a whole host of legal questions too. Whether employers can make vaccination mandatory for any or all employee groups, and what accommodations comply with human rights law, are commonly-asked questions.
The reality is that most employers are unlikely to be in a position to legally compel vaccination of all their employees. Some, for example, healthcare providers or residential homes, may be able to make an argument for mandatory vaccination of many or most of its employees. But even those employers are subject to challenge (see analysis prepared for the Canadian Medical Association Journal: Mandatory vaccination for health care workers: an analysis of law and policy).
Energies may be better spent encouraging vaccination in an inclusive manner in preparation for the time when vaccines become (widely) available.
The approach to COVID-19 vaccines is an opportunity for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Some resistance to vaccinations are well-known, accepted, and understood. These include general skepticism that the vaccinations are safe given the perceived speed of development, concerns about inadequate testing by drug companies, and doubts about vaccine efficacy. Employers can respond to these reservations with scientific and medical data generally available from government sites and other reliable sources.
But some employers will need to take a more nuanced approach depending on their workforce composition. For examples, see Health-care system’s history with Black community is affecting attitudes around COVID-19 vaccine and COMMENTARY: When it comes to vaccines, Canada needs to earn Indigenous, Black people’s trust, describing vaccination hesitancy in the Black and Indigenous communities because of the Tuskegee experiments on Blacks, the experiments on the effects of malnutrition on Indigenous children in residential schools, the outcomes for Blacks in the healthcare system and other systemic issues.
Strategies to encourage vaccination include the following:
- Educate the leaders—arm leaders with information to encourage vaccination in a nuanced and inclusive way. Increase awareness of programs by governments or not-for-profits to address the resistance described above (for example, see Toronto unveils plan to lower COVID-19 rates, encourage vaccination among Black residents and COVID-19 vaccines and Indigenous peoples).
- Communicate the organization’s stance on vaccinations early. Some employers have COVID-19 policies, like the flu shot policies that are now commonplace. Communicate regularly as medical, vaccination availability and other information changes. Use email updates, virtual town halls, intranet pages, FAQs addressing common myths, posters, and other media. If necessary, provide information about staggering time-off for employees to get COVID vaccinations to avoid disruptions to operations. Provide the contact information for someone whom employees can contact for further details.
- Enlist the help of health professionals. Create forums using public health officials, medical doctors, employee assistance programs, or pharmacists to provide information about vaccination safety and efficacy based on scientific data.
- Tell employees about why vaccination is vital for them, the organization and society. Reiterate the organization’s commitment to keeping employees and customers safe and supporting the public good of herd immunity. Emphasize that the organization bases its stance on available science and recommendations from government agencies. Once vaccines become widely available, publicize favourable vaccination rates in the organization. Consider email blasts or scrolling LED message boards with variations on the following: “40% of our employees got their COVID vaccine” or “40% of our employees got their COVID vaccines; did you?”. Provide “I got my COVID vaccine” stickers or buttons for employees who wish to wear them.
- Lead by example. Senior leadership can announce their own vaccination status using internal communication channels to post their vaccination selfies. Or the organization can highlight the vaccination rate for its leadership team. But remember to respect privacy. Vaccination status is personal information, so obtain any necessary consent from each individual before publicizing information.
- Support and incentivize employees. For instance, permit paid time off to get vaccinations. Some employers offer financial incentives for employees who get the shot(s). Dollar General, for example, acknowledged the hardships employees might have to face, including loss of work hours, childcare challenges, travel costs, and other sacrifices to get a vaccine. So Dollar General offered a one-time payment equal to 4 hours of pay to remove vaccination barriers (see Dollar General Removes Barriers for Frontline Workers to Get COVID-19 Vaccine).
- Communicate, and implement strategies with empathy. Acknowledge that the decision to get vaccinated can be stressful and is a personal choice. Reiterate that the organization respects employees’ rights to refuse vaccination on medical or other protected grounds.
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