6 experts on what Biden’s vaccine mandate means for HR

Here are insights and suggestions for what HR leaders should do to respond right now.
By: | September 10, 2021

President Biden’s announcement this week that a majority of employers will need to mandate vaccines or weekly testing for all employees is making waves throughout the HR industry. For those employers that had yet to mandate vaccines, some will likely welcome the news that the decision was taken out of their hands, while others may worry about employee backlash, especially in this age of the Great Resignation.

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No matter where employers fall on the issue, one thing is for certain: HR leaders are going to be in the crosshairs of this decision, from fielding new legal questions to assessing the best use of technology in vaccines and testing management and determining how to communicate with employees. HRE checked in with a number of HR experts and industry thought leaders to gather their reaction to the Biden announcement and gauge what HR leaders should be keeping on their radar in the coming days and weeks.

Here’s some of what they had to say, including several suggestions for what HR leaders need to do now:

Laura Woolford, chief people officer, AlertMedia:

“Should OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate go into effect, it’s important to remember that keeping employees safe should not be a political stance. Every employer has a responsibility to ensure their employees are safe and productive while at work. However, that doesn’t mean employees aren’t going to raise concerns, so HR leaders should be prepared to help them understand the why behind the policy and that OSHA’s guidelines have been implemented to ensure the continued safety of all workers everywhere. 

Remind employees that you value the diversity of opinion while being clear that you need to ensure legal compliance with all OSHA policies. However, HR leaders should be prepared to identify solutions for how to continue to support those employees unable to be vaccinated—or those not comfortable getting vaccinated or going into an office at this time. Allowing them to continue working from home is a reasonable accommodation, or per the mandate, they can choose to get weekly testing.”

Kara Govro, chief HR legal expert, Mineral:

Kara Govro of Mineral

“I was surprised, that’s for sure. We knew President Biden was going to start requiring vaccines for federal and federal-adjacent employees, but I think requiring this of private employers was indeed shocking and will no doubt be litigated to death. I’m sure hundreds of attorneys across the country were up all night drafting requests for injunction and imagining themselves giving brilliant oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court after multiple rounds of appeal.

It will also be interesting to see how employees try to get out of the testing requirement. Asking for a religious exemption from vaccination requirements is a common approach for resistant employees, but employers will likely push back harder on claims that testing alone conflicts with a sincerely held religious belief. Still, employees will no doubt try it, and employers will have to figure out how to respond. It’s possible that OSHA will throw employers a bone and get into the details of how to deal with requests for exemptions, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Ben Brooks, founder and CEO, PILOT:

“The federal government has given employers a huge gift with this policy, as it was one many senior leaders have been wrestling with. Generally, executives want staff back in the office and reduced variability/risk due to COVID but were hesitant to make such mandates themselves given the tight labor market and concerns about employee burnout as well as engagement. The Department of Labor has now made the decision, thus can be the fall gal/guy, and employers are simply managing compliance. 

Prioritize context over content in employee communications. For HR, is it tempting to get into the operational and policy details right away, but framing and perspective make all of the difference. Anchor to both what is important to your organization and to employees. For instance, organizations want to ensure that nobody gets sick/hurt/dies just by doing their job, and also they want everyone to feel safe coming to their worksite. For employees, everyone is so fatigued with uncertainty and short-notice changes. With vaccination and weekly testing, together we can reduce stressful changes to people’s schedules/plans, bringing much-needed stability to everyone’s professional and personal lives.”

Alan May, executive vice president and chief people officer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise:

Alan May of HPE, Photo: Eric Draper

“Every organization is different and will have to approach implementation of this requirement differently. But the common need from my perspective is to communicate with your employees early and often. If you don’t have all the answers as to how this is going to work yet, be honest and acknowledge that. Radio silence adds to employee anxiety and emotions on a topic that is, unfortunately, very polarized and politicized.

I think it’s just another compliance issue that HR professionals will have to add to their workload. Workplace safety and health guidelines are continually evolving, so we’re used to that. But, given the personal nature of the information that employees will be required to divulge—in many instances against their will or personal beliefs—it will require heightened sensitivity and empathy from everyone involved in implementing the mandate.”

Josh Bersin, HR technology analyst, Josh Bersin Academy:

“The big tech topic is tracking these vaccines and boosters in the corporate systems. Most of the vendors (Workday, ServiceNow, MS Viva) now have apps built in that let employees certify or upload their vaccination certificates so they can validate that people are in fact vaccinated. The CDC paper card is often used as the validation stamp but most states (California for example) also have a database that is very easy to access, and these vendors have already built lots of these tools.”

Sadie Banks, assistant general counsel and HR consultant, Engage PEO:

Sadie Banks of Engage

HR leaders should review and understand the newly announced order before meeting with company executives regarding (an) announcement to the workforce. Next, HR leaders should identify whether their company meets the numerosity requirement for the order. The purpose is to determine if the company is covered by the new order’s requirement(s). Employers should determine whether company management will be involved with announcing any policy change to their team members or if the announcement will only be funneled through HR leadership. There should be a written company-wide communication announcing the recent executive order, whether the company is covered by the order and how its workforce will comply.

Related: Can employees’ religious beliefs get them out of vaccine mandates?

HR leaders can also draft and release some anticipated Frequently Asked Questions and Answers that can be attached to the written announcement. In the alternative, the FAQs can be issued shortly after the initial announcement. Next, the company should design a practice to determine which employees are opting to get vaccinated and which employees will opt for increased testing. The company can require submission of the CDC vaccination card or proof of test results to be submitted to a designated work official and maintained in a separate confidential file for each employee. Last, ensure that any written policy is clear about when the new company policy will take effect.”

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Executive Editor Elizabeth Clarke contributed to this story.

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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