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HR Tip: Mandatory vaccines: workplace considerations

As the flu season approaches and the pandemic rages on, the issue of mandatory vaccination policies is again at the forefront. Health officials are encouraging flu vaccines to mitigate the risk of co-infections, to reduce symptoms screening confusion between influenza and coronavirus, and to preserve scarce healthcare resources. Some jurisdictions have laws requiring flu shots for workers in certain positions such as healthcare, education, and retail, while there are other laws allowing employees to opt-out of vaccinations. Collective bargaining agreements as well as the attitude of employees also come into play.

At the national level, the EEOC has not prohibited employers from requiring the shots (with certain limited exemptions), but advises employers to encourage flu shots rather than requiring them. Employers should be able to require vaccines if they are job-related, adequately inform employees of the requirement, allow employees to seek an exception (or accommodation) based on a disability or sincerely held religious belief, and ensure the privacy of each employee's medical information.

It's unknown if the guidance will change when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. The National Law Review outlines the legal considerations and how to prepare in its article, Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination: Is It Legal and Is It Right for Your Workplace?

In 2009 when the H1N1 flu sickened 60 million people in the US, many employers created educational campaigns to strongly encourage the vaccine and set up clinics to administer the vaccine onsite. The decision to encourage rather than require a vaccine is often an employee relations issue as there can be resistance from some employees.

For employers that do encourage or mandate a vaccine, the vaccine may mimic some coronavirus symptoms, such as a low-grade fever or body aches. To combat this, Johns Hopkins, which requires flu vaccines for its employees, is considering adding a question to its COVID-19 screening inquiring about a flu vaccine in the prior 48 hours.

No one knows when a reliable COVID-19 vaccine will be available, but it's important to prepare for it.