Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Vaccines won’t get us back to the office anytime soon

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What would you do if your boss announced that the last perk at work was free breakfast at the Waffle House?

How about the chance to win a TV in a raffle? Or an Airbnb gift card or a bike?

In the annals of employee benefits, these are relatively meager things, especially given the conditions attached to them. These are just a few of the incentives launched by U.S. employers to encourage reluctant staff to get vaccinated against Covid.

So much for the idea that the long-awaited blows would soon cause workers to return to the office. It turns out that even some nurses and doctors who have seen the anguish caused by the virus firsthand balk at the gunfire.

At an Illinois veteran, 90 percent of residents were reportedly vaccinated but only 18 percent of staff. Other frontline workers also seem suspicious. LA fire department is suspended raffle prize a Google Nest entertainment system and free rides from Lyft to encourage firefighters to get the hang of it.

Reluctance to immunize is nothing new. But it poses a series of employment dilemmas as governments struggle to end a global pandemic.

Last week I spoke to Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers in London, who was from makes the headlines for becoming one of the first bosses to say that he planned a “no blow, no job” policy for the staff.

He told me it wasn’t that simple: new hires should be vaccinated, but if existing workers had strong reasons to refuse, they could stay, as long as they were tested regularly. “I wouldn’t dream of forcing anyone,” he says. But once the vaccine becomes widely available, he believes his system will become the norm.

Lawyers specializing in labor law are not so sure.

What if an employer wants existing staff to be injected and some refuse? Can they ban them from the office or the workshop? Or force them to change jobs? Could they legally fire a worker who will not get vaccinated?

“We’ve never had to consider this sort of thing in the history of modern law,” says Libby Payne, a senior partner on the employment team at London law firm Withers. “It is a completely untested legal basis.”

Healthcare clients have already started asking his firm what the law allows and what doesn’t. His main advice is not to make quick decisions on “surprisingly complex and difficult” issues.

Employers who wish to exclude unvaccinated staff from the office should, for example, consider pregnant women. British government advises pregnant women not to receive a Covid vaccine at this time, as the vaccines were not tested during pregnancy.

The same goes for staff with allergies or other health problems that make vaccination risky and perhaps those who sincerely believe that a vaccine could be harmful.

If an employee has a bad reaction to a shot required for the job, liability issues can arise.

Another thorny question arises if an employer decides that it would be better to put vaccinated staff, for example, in the workshop to reassure customers. It may make sense for the business, but not for a worker who has spent years transitioning from a cash register to a higher paying office job.

Even in countries where authorities have been more specific, the situation can be murky. In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published orientation last month, it suggests that employers can legally require most workers to be vaccinated, except for people with sincere religious beliefs or health issues such as allergies. Yet many employers are still reluctant to make vaccinations mandatory. This includes a New Jersey police department where nearly a third of police officers were struck by the virus almost simultaneously last year. Its leader wants to avoid such a disaster again and wants its officers to be vaccinated. But as he told a reporter recently he will not order them to do so. This reluctance is understandable and explains why many employment experts doubt the workplace will return to normal long before the end of this year.

“I don’t want to be gloomy,” Ms. Payne says. “But I think the light is at the end of the tunnel and we are still very well in the tunnel.


Twitter: @pilitaclark


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