Here’s what risk managers should know as they consider their company’s approach to vaccinations and returning to work.
As the vaccine rollout in North America continues to unfold -- and with most governments using a phased approach -- many companies will be developing return-to-workplace plans for a partially vaccinated workforce that will continue to evolve over the coming months. This presents new risks to businesses, including potential workers’ compensation claims if a business mandates, or in some jurisdictions encourages, vaccinations and employees experience serious medical side effects. There are also concerns of discriminatory lawsuits surrounding vaccine mandates, and varying employee comfort levels with the vaccine.
In Canada, specifically, companies face an additional risk: stricter privacy laws leading to an increased hesitation among some people to get inoculated. Risk managers need to understand the privacy laws in their jurisdiction, but most likely employers won’t be able to track who’s been vaccinated among retired and current employees, vendors and customers.
Here are tips for navigating this new enterprise risk management challenge.
Consider motivating instead of mandating
Leaders know that a high population of vaccinated employees will help the company return to regular business operations faster. One strategy to accomplish this goal is a vaccine mandate. While some experts suggest that U.S. companies can legally mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for their employee population, doing so potentially exposes organizations to the risk of workplace discrimination and workplace safety lawsuits.
In Canada, according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, employers can’t mandate vaccines. Some companies have found a new way to motivate their employee base to get the vaccine by gaining access to vaccine quantities and offering access to their employees.
Of course, there are other ways to motivate your employees to get the vaccine voluntarily. Some ideas include granting extra paid leave per vaccine shot, maintaining a frequent and transparent internal communications strategy, and informing employees about vaccination access in their geography as well as known benefits and risks of vaccination.
Trust and transparency are key. Because 15% of Americans and 12% of Canadians say they will not get the vaccine, the more you can communicate factual information, the more likely your staff will feel comfortable and safe coming back to work.
Devise a plan that’s cross-organizational
It’s a good idea to create a task force to plan return to the workplace protocols by including representatives from risk management, HR, finance, legal, compliance, internal and external communications, the C-suite and even outside advisors. This kind of planning can’t be done effectively in a silo. Some of the most important areas to address include:
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)
Companies need to be clear on their corporate social responsibility stance regarding the health and wellness of their staff, customers and vendors. Your reputation is at risk if you get caught off guard. Run through the potential questions you could be asked, and make sure the communications team is prepared to answer all of them.
Crisis alert system
If you have a company-wide crisis alert system, update it now. You should be positioned to notify the entire employee population of a change in protocol to ensure operational resiliency, minimize business interruption and keep everyone safe.
Workers’ compensation claims
The compensability of a claim alleging COVID-19 as work-related is highly dependent on the jurisdiction and the individual facts of the claim. The question of compensability falls under each state's respective occupational diseases act or workers' compensation statute.
In many states, the employee will need to prove the virus was contracted at work and that their work duties placed them at a greater risk to contracting the virus than the risk faced by the general public. However, in states that have adopted a presumption clause either by executive order or rule amendment, the burden shifts from the employee to the employer to prove the illness is caused by something non-occupational. Just because the state has a presumption clause, does not mean the COVID-19 claim will be deemed compensable. This is because the presumption is rebuttable -- the employer may dispute the presumption with evidence such as:
- Measures in place to reduce potential transmission of COVID-19 in the employee’s place of employment
- The employee’s non-occupational risks of COVID-19 infection
- Statements made by the employee
- Other evidence regularly used to dispute a work-related injury.
Adherence to strong COVID-19 safety and hygiene practices is critical to combatting COVID-19 at work, but also in disputing an alleged workers’ compensation claim.
Learn from businesses that never closed
Your risk mitigation approach will depend on several decisions the company makes regarding vaccines and return-to-workplace. Some of the big decisions include whether you will require onsite work or a hybrid working model, whether you will require vaccines to return to the office, any exceptions you'll make for religious or medical reasons, and whether you have the operations in place to maintain hygiene protocols.
Companies that are just starting to reopen offices and other workplaces can take lessons from front-line and essential businesses that stayed open throughout the pandemic. Look at data on vaccination rates in the states where you operate and outcomes at sites similar to yours that never closed. Experts recommend that all companies have a return-to-workplace policy. From an enterprise risk management perspective, it is critical that policies are clear and enforceable, otherwise, they will have limited value in protecting your people and your profits.
For more details, reference this guide to help risk managers mitigate factors that will arise with vaccines and return-to-work, also Six Tips for Motivating Vaccinations in the Workplace and Q&As from Managing a Partially Vaccinated Workforce.
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