October 28, 2021

Three Steps to Prepare for the Federal Vaccine Mandate at Your Small to Midsize Business

The Nava Team

UPDATE 11/4/21: This article has been updated to reflect OSHA’s latest guidance released today. We will continue to update as more information becomes available.

In early September, the Biden Administration announced a new plan to mandate Covid vaccines or testing for millions of workers across the United States. This new policy, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), goes into effect on January 4, 2022.

Here are the key guidelines:

  • Employers with 100 or more employees will be required to ensure that every employee is either fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or undergoes weekly testing. Any worker who tests positive is prohibited from entering the workplace.
  • All government employees (including federal contractors) will be required to be fully vaccinated.
  • All employees of hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities that receive funding from Medicare and Medicaid are required to be fully vaccinated.
  • All unvaccinated workers will be required to wear masks in the workplace starting December 5.
  • Starting December 5, all applicable employers must begin offering paid time off for employees to get the vaccine and recover from any side effects.
  • Noncompliance can result in penalty fees ranging from $13,653 to $136,532.

Adapting to the vaccine mandate within your organization will require foresight, flexibility, and agility. Even for large companies with a range of resources, the federal vaccine mandate will require some unforeseen pivots over the coming months. We can't expect this kind of massive policy shift to happen overnight, so it's best to start laying the groundwork now.

As you prepare, who better to look to for guidance than the HR folks making these plans at America's largest companies? We tapped our Nava Healthcare & Benefits Advisory Board for their insider info on how their companies are ramping up to adopt the mandates, and scaled their advice for small to midsize businesses.

So let's get started. Here's a three-step process to prepare for the mandate beginning today.

Step #1: Determine how your organization will be impacted by the mandates.

Before you can chart your path forward, you'll need to understand where your organization stands right now, particularly in terms of vaccination rates and employee sentiment. This will help you predict the time and resources needed to successfully launch this initiative.

Take a hard look at your company, current policies, and employee base, and determine what needs to happen so you can meet the requirements of the mandate.

Here's a sample review process to help guide your next steps:

  • Take stock of employee sentiment. How might your employees react to the mandate? How did your employees react to the news of the mandate (and more fundamentally: how many of them are aware of it?) Among your unvaccinated employees, how are folks feeling about the prospect of getting vaccinated or tested weekly? If you're unsure, try issuing a survey.
  • Estimate how much of your employee population will be impacted. For example, how many of your employees may need to undergo weekly testing?
  • Keep your leadership teams up to date on the status of this mandate, and be sure they're familiar with company policies around pandemic precautions. You may want to coach them on how they should discuss these policies with their teams, to encourage consistent messaging across the organization.
  • Remember that this federal vaccine mandate may not reflect state and local requirements, so keep an eye on those as well.

As more information is shared with the public, remain nimble and open to change. Remember that your legal counsel or advisor can be a key resource in understanding and adapting to these guidelines.

Step #2: Take action to increase access to vaccines and testing among employees.

The data is clear: vaccines are the safest route towards putting the pandemic behind us. The good news is that it's easier to get vaccinated than ever before. Vaccine appointments are free, quick, and likely available at your nearest physician or pharmacy.

This mandate will make it even easier for employees to get the vaccine by requiring employers to offer paid time off for vaccine appointments and recovery. Keep in mind that some folks may experience short-term reactions similar to cold symptoms, and may not feel well enough to return to work right away.

Employers are not required to pay for or provide tests to their employees, unless stated otherwise by state or local laws or labor union contracts. However, employers may be required to pay non-exempt employees for the time spent waiting for and taking the test.

For employees who are not vaccinated, employers may consider providing at-home, self-proctored tests. As you might imagine, this is much more convenient than making a weekly trek to an in-person testing site. If an employer chooses not to cover the costs of the tests, they may consider distributing resources on where employees can access free or affordable testing.

Starting December 5th, employers may consider keeping some disposable masks on hand for employees who are required to wear them in the workplace.

Step #3: Develop and implement a vaccine tracking system.

Once the mandate goes into effect, most employers will need to adopt some form of vaccination and testing tracking policy. After all, without that information, there's no way of knowing whether you'll be correctly adhering to the mandate.

It's still unclear how employers will be expected to verify their employees' vaccination status, and whether proof of vaccine cards will be required. Begin exploring some HIPAA-compliant platforms for recording and storing this data, including the option to upload a vaccine card scan.

For example, many employers have adopted a virtual tracking system, wherein employees can scan their vaccine card to confirm that they have received both doses. Talk to your broker to see if they can provide any helpful information or resources to help get you started.

Here are some questions to consider when developing your tracking system:

  • How well does your policy uphold data privacy?
  • How will you record and store this information?
  • How will your employees give consent to having this information tracked?
  • Will you also track booster doses? While it's unclear whether these doses will be considered as part of the mandate, this info may be worth recording.

Note that this isn't legal advice. Before implementing the vaccination tracking policy, confer with your legal advisors to determine the correct language to employ, specifically around data privacy and information sharing.

Throughout each step, be transparent.

As you roll these policies out, your employees will probably have many questions. It's up to you to answer them clearly and thoughtfully. With a message this important, you really can't under-prepare or over-communicate.

So where should you relay these messages? Through all channels. Start where your employees usually communicate, then weave this messaging through all avenues. This information is hugely important, and you don't want anyone to miss it.

You may also consider developing a messaging guide for executive teams, to promote consistent communication across all teams. Encouraging managers to model the policies may also help normalize these new procedures among their colleagues.

Remember that this messaging can also be an opportunity to further encourage vaccination. Try weaving facts about the vaccine's efficacy and safety throughout your messaging.

Find a path that works for you and your employees.

Ultimately, the "right" approach to ramping up for the mandate will depend on your company. There are no one-size-fits-all answers here; rather, the path forward should be based on your industry, business, and employee population.

Have a question on the federal vaccine mandate? Reach out at info@nava.io.

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