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Employers have a tricky legal landscape on vaccines

June 30, 2021, 3:26 PM UTC
A person receives a covid-19 vaccination at the 2021 NYC Pride Fest near Union Square on June 27, 2021 in New York City. This year's NYC Pride March theme is 'The Fight Continues.’
Alexi Rosenfeld—Getty Images

Welcome to Worksheet, a newsletter about how people are working smarter in these turbulent times.

In this week’s edition, S. Mitra Kalita takes a look at return-to-work vaccine policies, and how human resources departments are developing these new protocols.


Despite the U.S. opening up, the world at large is actually mostly not vaccinated. Many workers have children under 12 who won’t qualify for vaccines until at least the fall. And then there’s the fear of the Delta variant, although its surge is predicted to be worst in states with high numbers of unvaccinated residents. 

Still, what’s an employer to do? Mandate vaccines? Strongly suggest them? Require them only for folks coming into the office? It feels odd that the return-to-work debate has not included more discussion around vaccine policies, surveys or reports on what percentages of workplaces are vaccinated, and how staff is navigating the overlaps. 

To understand how human resources departments are thinking about this, I talked to Amy Zimmerman, the chief people officer at Relay Payments, a financial tech firm. She’s also the co-founder and a principal at PeopleCo., which helps companies center talent and values. Edited excerpts of our conversation: 

Can a company require employees to be vaccinated? 

There is no clear legal “yes or no” answer yet. I’m happy to share our plan at Relay Payments. We are requiring that all team members who want to participate in face-to-face office interaction and activities get vaccinated. The vaccination requirement is not a condition of employment, but rather a condition to participate in the in-person community that we’ve created.

What if a company has people who won’t come back to work if everyone is not vaccinated? 

It’s a very tenuous subject for many. Lots of people don’t feel safe being indoors with unvaccinated people. I believe it’s our obligation as an employer to create a safe space for our team members. If we expect them to do the best work of their lives, how can we expect that to happen if they don’t feel safe? So my strong suggestion is to be flexible. Get comfortable with living in the gray for a bit longer. I realize that’s not what many employers want to hear, but that’s our reality. Focus on productivity and outcomes. The last year (and more) has proved that where the work is getting done is much less important than we’d previously believed.

What about employees who refuse to get vaccinated? 

Many states are “at will.” If a role requires that the work be done physically in the office, the team member in that role will need to make a decision. If being in the office isn’t a requirement of the role, let that team member continue working remotely so long as their work is in line with your expectations. 

What control do I have over employees having social gatherings? 

The truth is, we have zero control over non-work-related social gatherings. That’s part of why our in office policy is so important. We can’t control the decisions people make with their health, so it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that the decisions we make to protect our colleagues’ health in the office are prudent and thoughtful.  

Do we think employers will be responsible for booster shots? 

I don’t think employers will be responsible for the booster shots, though I do believe that by making them available, more team members will participate, if only out of convenience. At my former employer, we held annual flu clinics, and as a result, I believe many, many more people got their flu shot than would have otherwise.

Can we mandate other vaccines, such as for the flu etc.? 

Absolutely not, we don’t have that legal authority as an employer.


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