Navigating COVID-19 Vaccines and Masks in the Workplace
No decision will be popular with everyone and no single answer will be right for every business. That knowledge can make you feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The key to navigating these complex issues is to keep your people’s health and safety as your north star. This article will dig deeply into the different factors to consider as you make decisions regarding employee and non-employee safety, including mandating vaccinations, masks, and other measures. Relying on experience we’ve had at BambooHR, I’ll end with recommendations for how to get employees on board with your health and safety policies.
What Is Your Responsibility to the General Public?
Think about your day-to-day operations and the nature of your business. At BambooHR, we interact with our customers online and on the phone, so frequent outside contact doesn’t carry much weight in our health and safety policies. But in workplaces like schools, medical and dental practices, restaurants, grocery stores, and other industries with a lot of face-to-face interactions, you’ll need to consider how you’ll protect visitors from each other and from your staff.
This is more than just good customer service. The pandemic is still ongoing—the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports that in the U.S. alone, there were 445,984 new cases and 12,436 new deaths in May 2021—so it’s a vital concern.
Basically, you have four options when dealing with visitors and customers, and each decision comes with its own benefits and limitations:
- Vaccinated individuals can resume normal activities without wearing masks or social distancing and may appreciate not having to do so at your business.
- Businesses have the right to turn people away if they pose “a significant risk to the health or safety of others” (per the Americans with Disabilities Act).
- Businesses have the right to ask if visitors or customers have been vaccinated (some may think this violates HIPAA, but that law only applies to the healthcare sphere).
- Not everyone will think to carry proof of vaccination.
- Not everyone can be vaccinated (due to age or certain medical conditions).
- Under the ADA, businesses can only turn people away if the health risk “cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices, or procedures or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services,” so you may still need to provide reasonable accommodations for people who cannot get vaccinated based on a medical condition.
- The same rules for vaccinations apply for masks; you can ask people who come to your business to wear a mask, even someone with a disability, as long as you comply with local regulations and provide reasonable accommodations.
- In combination with social distancing, masks are still the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19, especially among unvaccinated populations.
- A large majority of U.S. adults (83 percent) view wearing a mask as an effective way to stay safe from COVID-19.
- Businesses don’t have to spend resources providing masks or checking that visitors and customers wear them.
- It’s not as effective by itself; the Center for Disease Control (CDC) lists this in combination with mask wearing as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19.
- Again, businesses don’t have to expend any more resources to enforce restrictions.
- Frontline employees won’t have to deal with uncooperative customers and visitors.
- Depending on the laws in your state, businesses can be held liable if someone contracts COVID-19 on the premises.
- You’ll increase the risk of infection for customers, visitors, and employees.
Please note that a few industries have federal mandates that require everyone to wear masks:
- Healthcare facilities
- Public transportation (buses, trains, planes, etc., and any transportation hub, like airports and stations)
Again, be sure to check the health and safety requirements for your state before making any decision. Here’s where you can find your state’s health department website.
What Is Your Responsibility to Your Employees?
Deciding whether or not to impose a vaccination or mask mandate can feel very tough. After more than a year of sheltering in place, social distancing, remote work, and more turmoil and stress than any of us thought possible, we’re all desperate to find some release from these intense pressures. We’re also still very aware of the risk involved with being careless. Those two ideas and the strong emotions and opinions connected with them can make a mandate feel like much more than a simple, logical choice. But in the end, the responsibility of the employer has never been waived, and that’s what should drive your policy decisions.
Additional Labor Laws and Guidelines for Employers Relevant to Masks and Vaccinations
In essence, employers have the same options with employees as with non-employees—mandating vaccination, masks, social distancing, or leaving it up to individuals—with many of the same benefits and limitations. However, employers have a few more labor laws and guidelines to consider.
- Vaccine Mandates: Employers can require employees who are physically present in the workplace to be vaccinated (some restrictions based on the ADA and Title VII apply).
- Proof of Vaccination: Employers can ask for documentation proving an employee has been vaccinated.
- Workplace Safety: Under OSHA, U.S. employers are expected to have standards that provide safe and healthy work conditions. To reduce the spread of COVID-19, OSHA strongly recommends employees wear masks, practice social distancing, and get vaccinated as soon as possible.
- Mask Mandates: While employers no longer have to provide protection in workplaces where everyone is fully vaccinated, OSHA recommends employers “still take steps to protect unvaccinated or otherwise at-risk workers in their workplaces” (employees may be eligible for accommodations under the ADA and Title VII). This excludes federal requirements for healthcare facilities and public transportation. Again, be sure to check the health and safety requirements for your state or city, as mask guidelines and laws may vary.
- Employer Liability: As with customers and visitors, employers can be held liable if an employee contracts COVID-19 in the workplace. Be sure to check liability laws in your state.
- Separate rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people: Since the CDC has separate mask rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, you could have different rules for different groups of employees, which would be lawful under OSHA and EEOC regulations. However, this can create divisions in the workplace or deepen existing political divides and socioeconomic inequalities, the latter of which could be unlawful under EEOC regulations if your policies end up excluding people based on protected categories.
- Federal and State Government Employees and Contractors: At present, the U.S. Federal Government does not require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. However, unvaccinated Federal employees and contractors must still wear masks when in Federal Government facilities. Fully vaccinated employees and contractors do not have to wear a mask. Regulations for state employees vary depending on the state. For example, California still requires masks to be worn in state correctional facilities and public schools, while Utah lifted its mask mandate for state facilities mid-May and for schools June.
- Differing state mandates: With every state having different health and safety rules, you might feel like it’s asking for trouble, both from employees and customers, if your policies are more strict than what’s required. On the other hand, if you’re in a state with few or no restrictions and your business follows suit, you may get complaints from employees who feel like your organization should be doing more to protect workers, no matter what the state has decided.
How Do You Help Employees Get on the Same Page Once You’ve Made a Decision?
Like I said at the beginning of this article, there isn’t going to be one right answer for every business, but once you make a decision, you can make the implementation of your health and safety policies smoother and more effective by prioritizing education and emphasizing the importance of everyone’s wellbeing.
Your top priorities will be to:
- Help employees understand why you’ve made the decision you’ve made.
- Elevate “I” thinking to “we” thinking throughout the organization.
If you have a very clear reason for why you’re doing what you’re doing, then that knowledge will help you be much more prepared and confident in facing any resistance from employees. Additionally, employees will feel more confidence and trust that you have their best interest at heart.
How Has the Pandemic Affected Employees?
We asked 1000 U.S. employees how remote work and 2020 impacted their careers, wellbeing, and future plans.
What Kind of Outreach and Employee Education Should HR Be Doing?
Education equals timely, relevant information and clear communication. Your organization needs to create a coordinated plan to get employees on board with your policies, including providing information on:
- Vaccine safety, side effects, and effectiveness with authoritative, credible, and accessible information—this alone makes employees up to 82 percent more likely to get the vaccine.
- What employees need to do to come back to work (health questionnaires, personal health monitoring, sign-in procedures, mask and vaccination policies, social distancing, etc.)
- Company incentives that encourage employees to be more safe at work, e.g., if you bring vaccination clinics on site or provide paid time off for vaccination appointments—simply booking vaccination appointments for staff raises the likelihood of vaccination by at least 45 percent.
- Available health insurance coverage for vaccination or when employees get sick
- Guidance from local health authorities, as this can change rapidly
- Updates on how the pandemic is impacting your workplace
As you make decisions, you need to consistently explain the “why.” It’s never going to be enough for some, but you have to keep talking about it so employees know that you’re doing everything you can and doing it for the right reasons.
That being said, employees are more likely to be on board if they have more freedom and more choices available to them, so as you keep them up to date, make sure to highlight all the choices they control.
Education in Practice: An Example from BambooHR
At BambooHR, we decided to mandate masks in the office when employees aren’t at their desks and to keep everyone socially distanced when they are at their desks. But we also implemented a hybrid workforce model, which gives employees the option to work remotely some or all of the time. Our thinking was that this would allow everyone to choose the situation that would make them most comfortable.
This is how we’ve handled the education and implementation of this hybrid model with a mask mandate:
- Before reopening the office, we sent a survey to ask employees what their personal preference would be when we returned to the office: working fully in the office, working sometimes in the office and other times remotely, and working remotely all the time.
- Employees worked individually with their managers to align their preferences with their job responsibilities.
- With this information, we made a plan for returning to work, including logistics such as:
- Ensuring flex workers have a desk when they come in
- Helping in-office workers stay socially distanced during the work day
- Helping remote employees stay connected to their team
- We discussed our plan with all employees over the course of several company-wide meetings, sharing the date for fully reopening the office and the logistics for the different work options.
- We first started with a pilot program, which we are still in, to test this new arrangement. This was also something we communicated frequently with employees during our company meetings and in communications about reopening the office.
- After this initial testing period, we’ll reassess as a company, and we’ll also give employees the opportunity to adjust or change their work arrangements.
Develop a Successful Hybrid Workforce
We’re certainly not perfect, and we’re still in the process of figuring out what will work best, both with this hybrid program and other initiatives. But as an HR team and a company, we made it our priority to not just keep employees in the loop each step of the way but also give them choices within the parameters of the health and safety policies we decided on.
How Do You Encourage “We” Thinking in Your Workplace?
When we remember that we’re all in it together, we’re able to think more altruistically and make choices that benefit everyone. Here are a few recommendations based on our experience at BambooHR.
Choose Policies that Help Protect Everyone
The pandemic is a polarizing issue; employees may have irreconcilable or controversial perspectives. If not handled carefully, safety protocols can potentially add fuel to the fire by making people feel singled out or stigmatized. That’s why education has to be your foundation and why you need to make sure everyone understands that the decisions you’re making are in order to protect everyone, not just one group of people.
At BambooHR, the divisiveness of the pandemic has been an important concern as we’ve set up our policies. While the CDC has different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, we didn’t want to create two different groups of people by implementing two different mask policies. And since we decided not to mandate vaccinations, we felt that a mask mandate for all employees would be the best choice to protect everyone.
Follow Local Mandates for Your Different Locations
While you’ll want to be consistent with your policies, you also need to follow local rules and mandates, which may mean adjusting things for different locations. This is another opportunity to flex your education muscles by:
- Communicating the different rules that apply to different locations
- Helping people navigate these differences if they have to work in different locations
BambooHR has offices in Utah and California; California has had stricter health and safety rules than Utah, so we’ve had to keep an eye on pandemic regulations in both states and act accordingly.
Give Employees Choices
We all respond better as humans if we have choices. When you have options, you feel better equipped to make the right decision. With our hybrid model in place, BambooHR employees don’t have to wear a mask or get vaccinated if they so choose. So if, for example, an employee asks why they still have to wear a mask in the office, rather than enter into a debate, we can remind them that they have options for not wearing masks that still help protect them and everyone else in the workplace.
At BambooHR, employees don’t have to wear masks:
- At their desk (only if they’re up and about)
- If they work from home
Respect Differences of Opinion
The pandemic is a highly charged topic, and as a result, any policy you choose may be deemed unacceptable by some employees. For some, the measures you take might not be enough, while for others any change from pre-pandemic guidelines may be too much. And while both positions offer some compelling opportunities for discussion, it’s a discussion that’s probably best left outside the workplace and definitely outside of HR policy decisions.
Try to treat every opinion and every individual with respect, and remind them that you value their contribution. But don’t forget: every employee retains the freedom to make their own decisions, including whether or not to work for a company whose policies they disagree with.
Put People First
We have the continued moral and legal responsibility to protect the health of all our employees with a common set of rules in the workplace. As HR pros, we feel the weight of this responsibility to do right by everyone even when we know we’re never going to please everyone. Masks, social distancing, and vaccinations can feel burdensome or unnecessary to some, but these are the standards that save lives.