By NCIA’s Human Resources Committee
COVID-19 vaccine policies are just the latest challenge for employers as the world continues to adapt to life after coronavirus. COVID-19 has forced employers to be much more actively engaged in monitoring our employees’ health and your company’s approach to a vaccine policy may continue to reflect the unusually intimate partnership between employers and employees in protecting the health of our communities.
Business owners may be eager for operations to return to normal after nearly a year of intense focus on disruptive business practices made necessary while we responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications for the workplace. While a widely vaccinated public has been promoted as the light at the end of this tunnel, over a third of Americans are reluctant to get the vaccine. This is where employers can make a difference in the trajectory of our national vaccine project by encouraging, and even requiring, employees to be vaccinated. Cannabis industry operators should be especially concerned about crafting a careful approach to vaccine policy as many of our workers have been declared essential throughout the pandemic and we provide services to some of the most vulnerable in our communities including those with chronic illness, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems. Yet, in many states, cannabis business owners and human resources departments continue to struggle with unclear guidance about when our employees will be able to get the vaccine.
What role do cannabis employers play in vaccination against COVID-19?
Employers will have to navigate a number of competing interests and obligations to craft a sound and responsible vaccine policy. On the one hand, employers are obligated to provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards” (OSHA General Duty Clause), i.e. persons infected with the coronavirus. On the other hand, employers are generally more hands-off when it comes to personal health decisions like whether or not to get vaccinated against certain illnesses, and indeed we have an obligation to protect our employee’s privacy and right to refuse vaccination due to a religious objection or medical condition. There is no shortage of advice available to cannabis companies but much of this advice fails to explore the real-world challenges that HR practitioners and business owners will face as they navigate vaccine issues with employees on the ground over the coming months, partly because we are wading into uncharted waters. Below is a brief summary of what information is available to guide employers right now.
Employers must be prepared to take a position on vaccines
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided guidance for employers navigating their approach to vaccination at the workplace. In general, the EEOC supports employers’ right to encourage or require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as well as take other precautionary measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. There is a persuasive business necessity to, at a minimum, encourage employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and cannabis companies may find that their employees are relatively prioritized in many state vaccine distribution plans due to the prevalence of designating cannabis workers as essential, though guidance specifically pertaining to cannabis workers is slow-coming and vaccine availability has gotten off to a rocky start with an uncertain supply of vaccines. At least for the time being, multi-state employers will have to continue to adapt to a patchwork of various approaches to state vaccine distribution plans just as they have for managing the workplace throughout the pandemic.
Be ready to accommodate legitimate objections
Employers must also proceed cautiously when responding to employees who refuse vaccination. Some employees who resist vaccination will have a legitimate right to be accommodated due to a sincerely held religious belief or a medical condition that prevents them from taking the vaccine. Employers must be ready with a flexible policy that allows qualified personnel to engage in an interactive process with these employees to discover and document the nature of their objection and then to negotiate a reasonable accommodation. For those positions that have already been eligible for temporary work from home arrangements, for example, an extension of this arrangement might be a reasonable alternative to vaccination. Other accommodations can be made for employees who must interact with the public or their coworkers to perform their essential job functions, such as leave of absence, but how soon such an employee would be excluded from the workplace given the scarcity of vaccine availability and under what conditions this employee would be allowed to return to the workplace are still open questions.
Vaccines remain one of many tools employers have to reduce risk
The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) published research earlier this month revealing that the majority of employers plan to encourage but not require their workforce to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This approach seems to dodge some of the more troubling aspects of rolling out a mandatory vaccine program and reflects the reality that many employers can use a combination of other means to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus such as the continuation of work from home policies, virtual services, contactless product delivery, etc. A mandatory program would force a confrontation between those employees who are unwilling to get vaccinated and the company’s managers tasked with tracking vaccination, avoids potential workers compensation claims that might arise from adverse reactions to the vaccine, and provides relief for the potential administrative burden of tracking employees’ proof of vaccination. A voluntary vaccine policy also restores some of the onus for making an informed decision about vaccines on the employee rather than the employer assuming all the responsibility, and potential liability, for forcing a decision to become vaccinated on the workforce. Keep in mind that even under mandatory vaccination policies, some employees will inevitably not get vaccinated and the company will need to work with those individuals on a case by case basis to determine what reasonable accommodations, if any, can be made for those workers. Employers who mandate vaccines as a condition of employment will also likely need to pay for vaccination if there is a cost in the future as well as provide paid time off for employees to go to vaccine appointments. A voluntary policy may make it easier for the employer to be flexible and compassionate toward the varying needs and attitudes of our employees while navigating the continually evolving state of vaccine availability and public health advice.
Expect to adapt to new information
Throughout the pandemic, employers have operated with ambiguity and uncertainty. This (hopefully) final stage of the pandemic will be no different. As we craft our vaccine policies, we should be prepared to deal with the unexpected and adapt to change as new information is available or revised. This is where I believe that cannabis companies have a real advantage. In this industry, flexibility and innovation are essential skills and we as professionals in this industry are well-practiced at pivoting with little notice. I am confident that cannabis operators will rise to the challenge of navigating vaccine distribution while protecting our workers and our customers with the same aplomb that has helped our industry thrive during the challenging last 12 months.