The day after President Biden unveiled the COVID-19 Action Plan, we ran a post with a list of questions for employers to help them start thinking about how they would implement a vaccine mandate for workers. First question: How will you track vaccination status? That’s a big one, since only about a third of employers we surveyed in August – prior to the announcement – had begun tracking vaccinations, and even those employers may need to revisit their process in light of the mandate. In this post, we dive into the subject in more detail – although definitive answers to some of the following questions will have to wait until OSHA issues the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) providing guidance.
Must employees provide proof of vaccination, or can we allow self-attestation?
While we won’t know for sure until we see the ETS, we anticipate that employers will be required to have proof of vaccination and not just self-attestation. In our August survey, a slight majority (54%) of those that were tracking already required proof of vaccination, and since the announcement we are seeing employers mostly choosing vaccine tracking systems that also offer a verification process. Of course, even with a verification requirement, the level of stringency can vary. For example, some employers are using a mobile application that allows employees to report that they have received the vaccine and upload a picture of the CDC card received at vaccination. Other vendors offer automated verification of vaccination by connecting directly with state registries, health providers, labs and pharmacies.
Employers that prefer to manage the process in-house can follow a simple standard operating procedure to verify COVID immunization records that includes asking an employee if their card was issued by a licensed medical provider or pharmacist at the time of vaccination and explaining it is against the law to present a false COVID-19 vaccine card. It’s important to communicate this process in advance so employees know what to expect. Valid CDC cards should include the name of one of the three authorized vaccines, the date of dose(s), vaccine lot number, patient’s date of birth, and the clinic/location or medical provider’s name.
What are the requirements for protecting confidentiality?
Information about an employee’s vaccine status is considered confidential medical information under the ADA. The ADA requires an employer to maintain the confidentiality of employee medical information, such as documentation or other confirmation of COVID-19 vaccination. This ADA confidentiality requirement applies regardless of where the employee gets the vaccination. Although the EEO laws themselves do not prevent employers from requiring employees to bring in documentation or other confirmation of vaccination, this information, like all medical information, must be kept confidential and stored separately from the employee’s personnel files under the ADA.
How do we handle vaccine exemption requests?
The demand for vaccine exemption requests will vary from one employer to the next, but all employers need to prepare for them. It’s possible the ETS will reference and incorporate into its guidance the ADA disability/Title VII religious exceptions, and perhaps be prescriptive that an accommodation for such individuals to return to the worksite will be at least weekly testing. The exemption determination process is cumbersome, and if you anticipate the demand will be high in your population, consider finding a vendor that can assist with some or all of the process. Solutions range from helping manage the documentation to providing a multi-disciplinary committee to complete the review and provide a determination.
In-house or outsource?
The lack of resources looms as a major hurdle for many employers as they contemplate complying with the mandate. HR staff already has been burdened with the additional tasks of contact tracing, communications, employee navigation for COVID concerns or symptoms and the overall pandemic response. We have seen burnout negatively impact teams and lead to retention problems, so it’s important to be very realistic in weighing the decision to handle vaccine tracking in-house or seek outside help. To help identify vendor solutions to support vaccine tracking and verification efforts, Mercer has maintained an open RFI throughout the pandemic. We can attest that good solutions do exist!
How do we communicate a new tracking requirement to employees?
Up until now, whether a company chose to allow self-attestation or require third-party verification – or to track vaccinations at all -- was largely driven by the company culture and how they have tracked information in the past. Location has played a role: We have seen state legislation that ban vaccine mandates for private employers, such as MT and ND. Companies that have been generally less stringent in their COVID-19 response in general (in terms of testing, mask mandates, vaccine communication, etc.) may need to be especially thoughtful in communicating new processes to track and/or verify vaccination status to optimize compliance and minimize push-back. Employee surveys consistently find that workers appreciate efforts by their employer to ensure worksite safety and provide support for their health and well-being. Focusing communications on how vaccine tracking will help keep colleagues and their families safer in the face of the Delta variant – and possible new variants still to come – could go a long way to easing acceptance. To deliver the message, consider a physician-led webinar with the opportunity for employees to ask questions.