Vaccines Bring Hope without Clarity for the Future of the Workplace

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David Rice

COVID vaccine

As Q1 culminates, we will soon approach the one year mark since the start of the Coronavirus crisis. All of the uncertainty and angst over the last year continues into the New Year, despite the arrival of multiple vaccines that could help frontline workers and at risk populations to avoid ever contracting the virus.

But despite the long awaited opportunity to get the vaccine, it is predictably being met with skepticism and hesitation. Any hope employers had of getting everyone vaccinated in 2021 and back to work is quickly fading.

A survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows about a quarter of U.S. adults aren’t sure if they want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Roughly another quarter say they won’t. Only about half (47%) say they will get the vaccine with males (55%) more comfortable with the idea than women (40%).

Age also plays an important role, with older Americans suggesting they’re more willing to get the vaccine. More 60% indicate they will. Meanwhile, roughly one-third of the population under the age of 45 indicate that same level of willingness.

For Black and Hispanic Americans, there is a well-developed and entirely justifiable skepticism of vaccines given the historical transgressions that have taken place with those communities with regards to medical research and practice. As a result, only 24% of Black Americans and 34% of Hispanic Americans say they will get the vaccine.

All of this shows the challenge that lies ahead and in dispersing and administering the vaccine on a scale big enough to ensure the safety of employees in the workplace and to bring an end to social distancing and mask wearing practices that make the current work environment what it is.

READ: Never Going Back: 7 Ways the Pandemic has Changed HR Forever

Mandatory Vaccines?

A natural question to ask is whether or not vaccines could be mandated. The government has indicated that it won’t take any such action and as the previously cited statistics show, making them compulsory would be a massive undertaking for a government which does not have the full faith and trust of the people to begin with.

While it’s conceivable that employers could attempt to mandate vaccination for a return to offices, the legal ramifications of such a decision would be difficult to overcome. Employees could cite religious beliefs as a reason to resist vaccination, though not every state recognizes non-medical exemptions to something like vaccines.

How courts would regulate non-medical exemptions in businesses outside the healthcare industry is a different matter than how it regulates healthcare, where some states already limit non-medical exemptions. If issues of race, gender and religion are tied to an attempt to regulate, however, employers can rest assured that enforcement of a mandatory vaccine policy could get tricky.

Ineffective Rollout

Distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration has been something of a disaster in and of itself. The federal government has failed to enact a distribution plan or support localized plans in a meaningful way. Typically, the government provides localized text alerts or updates broadcast on local TV in crisis scenarios, but none of that has been done and local governments, already lacking in resources for effective dispersal, are struggling to get details on vaccine availability and distribution just like everyone else.

In order to set up an infrastructure, some have turned to using Eventbrite as a method of setting up vaccine appointments. The fallout from this lack of information from the government is that people are turning to online sources and finding information that, as you might expect, is not always reliable.

PODCAST: The Human Challenge of 2020

As a new administration takes over in a matter of weeks, it faces a significant challenge in simply creating the infrastructure for an effective vaccine rollout to occur, before addressing any of the aforementioned issues around perception. It has promised a “whole of government response”, but what exactly that means, how quickly it can happen and what it’ll mean for the workplace remains to be seen.

In the end, the vaccine is welcome news, but isn’t likely to produce a return to something resembling normal any time soon. For all the hope that 2021 holds, leaders and companies should prepare to move yet another new normal as the situation continues to shift with some workers being vaccinated, others not and many wishing to remain in remote environments.

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