Advice on staff COVID vaccinations

As more Americans are getting their COVID vaccinations—a third of the population has received at least one dose and around one-fifth has been fully vaccinated—many veterinary practices are working to figure out their vaccination policy.

Coming up with one is tricky—around 17% of American adults said they don’t plan to get vaccinated, down from 22% in January, The Wall Street Journal reports. And that varies by region: vaccination hesitancy is higher in southern states.

There are no easy answers, but NEWStat talked to Kellie Olah, SPHR, SHRM-CP, a human resources consultant for Veterinary Business Advisors and coeditor of the AAHA Guide to Creating an Employee Handbook, Fourth Edition, to get some guidance.

NEWStat: What are hospitals’ rights as far as requiring staff to get vaccinations?

Kellie Olah: Many employment rules are dictated by state law and are state specific, [so] each practice would need to check their state laws to be sure.

In most states, vaccinations can be required in a private company. That said, it may not be best practice, given that employers must consider any requests for religious and medical accommodations when creating this type of rule. You also have to take into account any liability risks should a vaccination injury occur. We recommend educating your team [about COVID vaccinations] and providing paid time off/flexible schedules in order to make [getting a vaccination] easier. [Doing both will] increase the likelihood of team members accepting the vaccine.

NEWStat: Do staff have the right to refuse to get a COVID vaccination for any reason?

KO: Staff have the right to request an accommodation (i.e., refusal of vaccine) based on a protected reason covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (e.g., a sincerely held religious belief). A personal or ethical objection without the religious backing would likely not be sufficient to request an accommodation if the practice can prove it creates an undue hardship [on the rest of the staff].

NEWStat: Can hospitals terminate employees who refuse to get the vaccine?

KO: Yes, if the practice mandates the vaccine as a condition of employment, and the employee does not have a reasonable accommodation request to not receive the vaccine.

NEWStat: Can hospitals offer incentives such as gift cards or cash to encourage staff to get the vaccine?

KO: Offering incentives is hard because if an employee has a religious exemption you would have to provide a way for them to receive the incentive as well—which basically defeats the purpose of having incentives.

NEWStat: What’s the dividing line between COVID-19 as a public health issue and sovereignty over one’s own body when it comes to getting vaccinated?

KO: When it comes to running a practice, all decisions have to be looked at as a business decision. What is the risk and what is the reward? It’s the same for each person: we each have to individually assess the risks and the rewards, and make a decision.

NEWStat: What are some other factors practices should take into account before requiring that an employee get vaccinated?

KO: It’s a divisive issue and we recommend employers [strongly consider the consequences] prior to making blanket mandates. If your best associate or a [long-tenured] technician refuses to get a vaccine because it’s against their personal beliefs, are you ready and willing to terminate them on the spot? If you mandate the vaccine and an employee has a negative reaction—for any reason—what is your liability?

NEWStat: Are there any aspects of this issue that should be of particular concern to veterinary hospitals that might not apply to other employers?

KO: I think this issue goes beyond any one industry and impacts all businesses.

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