The FDA’s decision Monday to grant full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provides business owners one more reason to consider mandating employee vaccinations, but it leaves many grappling with what to do. Legal and human resource experts agree that culture, business demands, and geographic location should all be considered in tailoring policies that fit the unique circumstances of each retail florist, grower or wholesaler.
Experts advise employers to take a breath, survey the landscape, and be intentional with COVID-related policies. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing a business through COVID-19, they say.
“Legal advice can only go so far,” says Richard Warren, deputy leader of the Employment and Labor Group at the law firm Miller Canfield. “Decide what you will adopt not solely on legal advice but also your intuitive knowledge of how your employees and customers will react to it.”
Considering Vaccine Mandates
The decision of whether to mandate vaccination among employees is one of the toughest. Requiring the vaccine may seem prudent, a way to protect not only the health and safety of employees, but also of clients and the public who regularly engage with the business. But vaccine mandates also raise drawbacks for business owners who don’t want to engage in the political and personal freedom debates surrounding vaccinations.
Still, a recent Morning Consult poll commissioned by American Express found only half of America’s small businesses are likely or certain to require vaccination for on-premise employees, with 31 percent indicating they are unlikely to or “certainly won’t” impose a mandate.
From a federal law perspective, employers can mandate the vaccine, says Warren. Jessica Summers, an attorney at the Maryland-based law firm Paley Rothman, which partners with SAF to provide legal advice for members, agrees, noting that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA) have clearly labeled COVID-19 a public health issue. Both Warren and Summers note exceptions must be allowed for a seriously held religious belief or medical reason.
Just because federal law makes mandates legally permissible, it doesn’t mean employers have to draw a firm line in the sand.
Businesses could take a more nuanced approach, asking customer-facing employees to be vaccinated, but not necessarily requiring the remote bookkeeper or the contactless delivery driver to be vaccinated, Warren explains. “When I consult, I advise, ‘Don’t make an up or down decision,’” he says.
Another option is to stop short of mandating the vaccine, but “strongly encourage” it, Summers suggests. With the prolonged labor shortages facing the floral industry, this may be a good option for those looking to avoid retention headaches.
Offering incentives, such as a day’s pay or a small cash bonus as one Arkansas florist did, is one option for employers to encourage vaccinations, Warren says.
David Lewis, the CEO of the human resources consulting firm OperationsInc, recommends employers avoid asking about vaccination status. “I think it is a minefield,” he says. “I feel like asking that question creates all sorts of follow-up questions.” The biggest follow-up question is how to respond when an employee responds that they have not or will not get vaccinated.
Instead, Lewis says employers should focus on the message they want to send to their employees and customers. That message should be a sincere effort of protecting health and safety.
“It’s really about the relationship with customers,” he says. “More and more customers are looking for evidence of responsible business owners.”
Public Relations and Culture
Sending the right message to employees and customers is equally important as deciding how to handle vaccination requirements.
“Part of this is a business decision,” Summers says. “Some are choosing based on pressure from employees. Or it’s a PR position that they want to be able to do that Instagram story that says, ‘This business stands with public health and has accordingly decided to mandate vaccines.’”
For Abby Chick, owner of Blakemore’s Flowers in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the decision fit into her company culture. Her staff of ten, ranging from part time to full time employees, are all vaccinated and agreed earlier on in the pandemic to follow public health guidelines for masking, social distancing and quarantining. In establishing the policies, Chick says she made her views clear but also took time to have conversations with employees about their comfort.
“If you cultivate a family and friendly-like atmosphere, they are going to be loyal to you — that’s my company culture,” she says.
Summers recommends employers conduct a blind survey of employees to understand where their staff stand on COVID-related issues. “An internal temperature read is a good idea, particularly if you are concerned about retention,” she says.
Masks Remain a Factor
Just as public and employee relations are part of the vaccine policy conversation, so are masks. Masking policies should also remain part of the picture, human resource experts agree.
Masks can be part of an employee uniform and part of the retail business environment, sending the message that the business cares about the health and wellness of its employees and customers, Lewis says. While he doesn’t recommend vaccine mandates, he does support mask mandates for employees. “You want to standardize, structure and provide,” he says.
At Blakemore’s this means having staff masked, posting a “masks required” sign, and offering customers free masks to shop inside, or helping them from the front porch if they aren’t interested in masking, Chick says.
“I’m worried more this year than I was last year about what’s going to happen,” Chic says about her reasons for remaining vigilant against COVID-19 transmission. “Specifically with the closing of businesses because of the Delta variant and kids, who can’t be vaccinated yet, getting sick. I think it’s going to be a hardship with more quarantining. It does lead to loss of business.”
Tips and Resources
Write it down. Any COVID-19 policy should be written down to ensure consistency, Warren says.
Paid leave tax credit. If mandating the vaccine, employers can take a tax credit for providing paid leave for employees to get vaccinated or recover from the vaccine between now and Sept. 30. American Rescue Plan tax credits available to small employers to provide paid leave to employees receiving COVID-19 vaccines; new fact sheet outlines details.
Job postings. In employee recruitment efforts, COVID-19 policies—including mask wearing and vaccine mandate—should be in advertised, Summers says.
Look it up. Federally, OSHA and the CDC continue to update guidelines for businesses on protecting workers, Summers says. Local chambers of commerce and state labor departments are two other resources for understanding regional guidance, Lewis says.
Sarah Sampson is a contributing writer for the Society of American Florists.