The Role U.S. Employers Play When it Comes to Vaccine Access

As access to COVID-19 vaccines continues to expand across the country, there’s one question on the minds of employers working to reopen their workplaces: what is our level of responsibility when it comes to vaccination?

Matt McCambridge, CEO of Eden Health, recently participated in a Columbia Business School Panel to explore the role of U.S. employers in vaccine access. Joined by panelists Scott Ratzan, Martin Schmelkin, and Candice Sherman, this discussion was moderated by Bunny Ellerin of Columbia Business School. 

Watch the panel recording below or keep reading for key highlights from the discussion.

 

 

HOW BUSINESSES ARE THINKING ABOUT EMPLOYEE VACCINATION

As a digital-first medical practice providing patient-centered care for members, Eden Health works predominantly with employers who support the wellbeing of their workforces. “We’ve seen a significant percentage of our partners require folks to get a vaccine before returning to the office and I expect this trend will continue as more people go back to work,” McCambridge said. “Employers have an absolute mandate to keep facilities safe for employees. From an employee perspective, just imagine being asked to return to an unsafe work environment. Some employers are viewing it as an existential business risk to not have people return to work — and vaccines are key to the return-to-work process.”

WHAT ARE THE LEGAL IMPLICATIONS OF MANDATING THE VACCINE?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said that employers may mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees, though they are subject to limitations posed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Panelist Martin Schmelin, a partner at Jones Day, noted that employers need to familiarize themselves with these pieces of legislation to be aware of any issues that may preclude an individual from receiving a vaccine, namely a disability or a sincerely held religious belief.

WHAT ACCOMMODATIONS CAN BE MADE FOR EMPLOYEES WHO DO NOT GET VACCINATED?

According to McCambridge, there’s a clear blueprint for employees who choose not to, or cannot be, vaccinated. Employers can embrace a flexible work model where unvaccinated employees can continue to work remotely. Other accommodations to consider? Upgrading the audio and video equipment in office conference rooms so that communicating with remote employees is as seamless as possible. Finally, aggressive daily or weekly COVID-19 testing can help bring employees back, even those who remain unvaccinated. 

WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO TO FACILITATE VACCINE ADHERENCE?

According to McCambridge, despite the fact that it feels like there is uncertainty, there are clear steps for employers. First, have a medical professional talk about vaccine efficacy in front of your workforce. Next, provide accommodations for those who have access to the vaccine by bringing the vaccine to your worksite. Lastly, provide resources to folks who have concerns, whether that’s by giving them access to mental health resources or having HR host individual conversations. “The blueprint is there, it exists now,” McCambridge said. “There’s a lot of resources you can leverage to make you feel like you’re approaching this the right way.” 

THE LAST YEAR HAS SHIFTED THE WAY EMPLOYERS VIEW HEALTHCARE EQUITY.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movement that galvanized the country last spring and summer have magnified the importance of robust equity initiatives for employers. They’re more cognizant that programs and benefits that provide time off for things like child or elder care lead to better access and equity for all of their employees. 

Employers need to recognize that they are a part of the communities in which they live and work. When it comes to vaccine messaging, employers have a responsibility to meet people where they are by forming relationships with trusted community leaders. Reflecting on a recent partnership with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago that helped deliver COVID-19 vaccines to the community, McCambridge said “Folks know them. We need roots in the community because we can’t expect to just roll in and expect residents to trust us.”

RETURN-TO-WORK TIPS FOR EMPLOYEES.

While much of this panel focused on the employer’s point of view when it comes to vaccines and opening up their workplaces, each panelist offered up some advice for those who aren’t in charge of creating the return-to-work plan. First, know what guidelines your employer has put in place and how comfortable you feel about them. Reach out for mental health services if you’re feeling stressed or anxious before or after returning to work. Next, ask for ongoing feedback loops that take your concerns into account. Finally, be informed. “Get to know what resources you have through your employer,” McCambridge advised. “Whether it’s mental health resources through an outside organization or access to speciality providers, if you’ve never visited your team’s internal resource page, familiarize yourself with what’s available to you.” 

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