Coronavirus Vaccines And The Workplace
What should an employer do?
According to US and UK statistics, where economies are at or near to achieving herd immunity, the number of confirmed cases to deaths ratio continues to drop to numbers not seen since the pandemic began. As fewer people are getting infected, these economies are opening up and enjoying significant growth and so are their businesses. Employers, however, face the daunting challenge of developing a policy to deal with workers who don’t want to get vaccinated.
The Evidence for taking the Vaccine
- There is significant evidence to suggest that if you contract the disease after being fully vaccinated, you are less likely to have to be hospitalized:
- on 26th June 2021, the UK reported 17,943 cases and 23 deaths, where 61% of adults have been fully vaccinated. This equates to 780 new cases for each death
- in comparison to T&T’s 129 new cases and 17 deaths which is a staggering 8 new cases for each death!
It is worth noting that fully vaccinated persons should still wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash hands as they can still contract and spread the virus. The new delta variant is showing that in countries such as Israel and the UK, fully vaccinated persons are contracting the virus.
There is also significant evidence to suggest that someone fully vaccinated who contracts the disease is less likely to infect another person, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/effectiveness.html) and this is a more contentious point which I think receives less support https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomspiggle/?sh=2ec6320ae5dc
How does Vaccine Hesitancy Impact Back To Work Guidelines
Assuming these two points are correct, employees who refuse the vaccine and go to work may increase the chances of infection amongst their family, colleagues, customers and suppliers which could lead to sending these workers back home, reinstating social distancing policies and ultimately, lockdown measures.
If an employer insists that their unwilling employees take the vaccine, it is likely to run against best practice industrial relations which confirms “an employer cannot unilaterally alter or change the existing terms and conditions of employment of workers”. https://www.guardian.co.tt/article/can-employers-make-it-mandatory-to-take-the-vaccine-6.2.1337612.93820bf0fd
Alternatively, the employer could take more of a consultative approach to understand the views and reasons for vaccination hesitancy – eg. attempting to override a religious belief which causes the employee to hesitate to vaccinate could amount to infringing a basic human right which our constitution protects and is arguably the reason our government cannot mandate everyone to take the vaccine even if it procured enough to supply the entire population as well as put forth its own views and perspective.
The Consultative Approach to Back to Work
There are several aspects to a successful consultative approach. These include:
By providing employees with access to objective and reliable data, from well-respected sources which confirm you are less likely to be hospitalized if you contract the virus after vaccination, an employer could confirm their motive is aligned with the health and wellbeing of their employees. Where existing relations between employer and employee are healthy and positive, an employer should not find it too challenging to communicate genuine and transparent motives which are aligned with the best interests of their employees.
In addition, providing evidence to confirm that inoculation reduces infection and the spread of the disease, the employer could persuade hesitant persons that by coming to work unvaccinated, they could risk spreading the disease to their family, colleagues and customers, suppliers etc which we all know by now does not discriminate and could be fatal. Educating employees based on facts found on WHO and CDC’s websites can potentially develop informed decisions which are usually better than uninformed ones. However, where companies have in-house/outsourced medical practitioners or successfully vaccinated employees who are trusted by their peers and can be asked to provide FAQs / educational webinars, this could be more impactful.
Access to Vaccines
Employers are trying to make obtaining the vaccine as easy as possible. This is clearly demonstrated in Trinidad and Tobago via the number of private/public vaccination rollouts happening via SATT, TTMA, the Diabetes Society etc. These collaborations are allowing employees easy access to vaccines, not only for themselves but also their family members.
This ensures that employees not only can access hard to obtain vaccines but also have time off of work to get them. Providing paid time off for employees to get the vaccine and recover from any potential side effects is also another way of supporting employees.
Incentives to Vaccinate
Our Prime Minister publicly announced the government’s first ‘incentive’ on 26th June by stating that fully vaccinated nationals repatriating to T&T with a negative PCR within 72 hours will be allowed to go home without having to quarantine. Non-vaccinated nationals, by contrast, must go into self-funded, state-supervised quarantine for 14 days.
We have seen other economies open up after a lockdown where vaccination passports have become a popular way for businesses to ensure a safe environment for their customers and staff. Non-vaccinated staff and customers are not being granted access unless they can produce a recent PCR / Lateral Flow test at their cost.
We are seeing employers in the US rolling out policies that provide incentives for those who get vaccinated. Employers considering such an incentive should be careful to ensure it cannot be seen to coerce an employee into being vaccinated and precedents continue to be set in the US on this topic.
Vaccinate to Operate
We are currently in the midst of a lockdown. However, as restrictions are lifted, if ‘frontline’ employees, whose jobs require close contact with customers, refuse the vaccination and go to work, they could adversely impact their employer‘s business by discouraging customers -who see this as a health and safety risk. After months of significantly reduced revenues, or indeed no revenue, as a result of being closed due to lockdown (think of waiters/waitresses at restaurants), these employees could be putting the future viability of their employers’ business and therefore their own jobs at risk.
How does the industrial court treat such cases? The nature of the pandemic and the policies developed to treat it are fluid. The best solution seems to be a consultative approach between employer and employee that leads to an amicable agreement serving both interests.
Unfortunately, in the real world, we know this does not always happen which is why it is in the employer’s interest to develop a sound COVID-19 Vaccination policy in line with industrial relations best practices.