Enticing employees to get the jab

Wayfair and law firm Much Shelist discuss corporate vaccination polices.

Although it is legal to require vaccines at most U.S. companies, employers could face lawsuits if they compel workers to get inoculated. So, encouraging workers to get the jab is the safer business approach.

Such is the key message from “The Future of Work: How to navigate your organization’s return (or not) to the workplace,” a webinar hosted earlier this month by Ragan Consulting Group.

“On the ground, the trend we’re seeing is strongly encouraging, not mandating vaccines,” says Laura A. Elkayam, an associate in the Chicago office of law firm Much Shelist. “And doing whatever you can to facilitate vaccinations including paid time off, even if not required by law.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said employers can mandate the vaccine, but emergency use statutes – which the Food and Drug Administration used to grant public access to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – allow people to refuse products administered on such a basis. As a possible sign of what’s to come, a correctional officer has sued a New Mexico prison for its “mandatory COVID-19 vaccination directive” after refusing to follow it and receiving a write-up stating he must comply.

“It’s a touchy and undeveloped area of the law,” Elkayam says, noting that people may object to vaccination mandates on religious, medical or other grounds. “Be aware that if you require vaccines, you may face legal challenges.”

Wayfair is giving employees myriad opportunities to get vaccinated without mandating them, says Rachel Pearce, senior manager of employee communications and engagement for the company’s customer service division. For more than a year, the 3,500 employees in her group have been working from home, aided by a desktop, two monitors and a headset. Sales at the online retailer have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Last year’s net revenue of $14.1 billion marked a 55% year-over-year increase, the company says.

“We’ve been tremendously busy, with people buying online for their homes,” Pearce says. But with everyone working remotely, “there have been challenges with background noise.”

The company’s staggered return-to-office plan will help to address that. Beginning August 1, some employees will report to work five days a week, while others will continue to work from home through December. The company hopes for a complete return to corporate facilities by next year, Pearce says.

Personal and collective safety is high on the consideration list. Returning workers will need to sign a pledge, promising to remain six feet apart and sanitize communal areas. The company is offering three hours of paid time off and reimbursing employees up to $50 for childcare so that any employee who wants to get vaccinated can do so.

“We are repurposing some of our supply chain warehouses to serve as onsite vaccination clinics,” she says. “If they can’t get the vaccine at the CVSs of the world or state clinics, they can get it at Wayfair.”

Pearce shared several employee engagement strategies with webinar attendees:

  • Take pulse surveys to gauge employee sentiment; use those insights to write FAQs and other communications materials.
  • Be mindful when asking for input. For example, don’t ask employees if they want to work at the office five days a week if you will be asking some of them to stay home.
  • Be humble. It’s OK to say you don’t know the answer to something – employees are likely to value the honesty and candor.
  • Explain how you have come to a decision, so people have the context. Use managers as champions of corporate plans.
  • Launch, learn and iterate.

“Information changes quickly,” Pearce says. “No one has a crystal ball these days. Giving yourself space to iterate will be helpful. It’s certainly been helpful to us.”

Sally Ann O’Dowd is a consultant with Ragan Consulting Group. She is a communications executive and writer with 20 years of international public relations and advertising experience. 

Ragan Consulting Group specializes in corporate communications training, consulting and strategic counsel. Contact Kristin Hart at Kristin.Hart@raganconsulting.com to learn how RCG can help improve your communications strategy. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here.

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