Inside one HR leader’s aggressive COVID-19 vaccination plan

When the COVID-19 vaccines started to be approved late last year–and even before–Roanica Paisley wasted no time in gauging how workers at her organization felt about the vaccines on the horizon. She had several conversations with workers and listened to their fears: The vaccines were developed quickly. They were approved too fast. Did they have enough testing? Enough data? Were they safe?

Roanica Paisley

Paisley, senior vice president of human resources at Rising Ground, a large New York City human services nonprofit, asked because she immediately had a lofty goal in mind: to convince all of the nonprofit’s 1,600 workers to get vaccinated.

“There was hesitancy,” she says. “We thought, ‘How are we going to get people aware? How are we going to educate and encourage?’ Because that’s our stance.”

‘They need that shot in the arm’

Rising Ground employees are considered essential workers since they support individuals who need their help–they provide children, adults and families in the greater New York City area with resources and skills–which is one big reason she wanted to encourage all of her employees to get inoculated.

“[Our community members’] lives are not the same without us, and the work we do with them has to go on despite the pandemic,” she says. “Because [our workers] are face to face with these individuals, they need to get that shot in the arm for the safety for themselves and the person they are supporting. So our work can go on in a safe way.”

Read all of HRE’s COVID-19 vaccine stories here.

Earlier this year, Paisley sent out a survey to gather more specifics on how her employees felt about the vaccines: Did they plan to get inoculated? Where were they getting information about the vaccine? What exactly were their concerns? What could convince them to get vaccinated?

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Though she was pleased to find that a number of employees were leaning toward getting vaccinated, she knew she had work to do in convincing many others. Also at play were concerns for Black and brown employees in particular, who due to race and past experiences, had real fears of vaccination. The majority of Rising Ground employees are people of color.

So Paisley started an aggressive campaign to reach employees.

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The employer has been sending weekly emails with credible information about the vaccine citing medical experts and doctors. Rising Ground also posts information about vaccines on social media and has organized and hosted related workshops. A recent event brought in physicians from the Columbia University Department of Emergency Medicine to discuss the vaccines–and their benefits–with employees; HR plans to schedule more such discussions.

Rising Ground is posting photos, including this one of executive vice president Angela White, on social media to encourage employees to get vaccinated.

Paisley also is leaning on employees who have received the COVID-19 vaccine as credible messengers about their experience. Rising Ground has been sending out photos of them getting vaccinated via email, social media and the company’s intranet.

“We’re trying to correct the misperceptions, the misinformation that might be out there from our employees,” Paisley says. “And we’re using employees who have gotten the vaccine as credible messengers. We can’t always change how people feel, but we can educate and make them aware and [help them] make those decisions that are good for them.”

‘A plan that keeps evolving’

In addition to getting information out, the nonprofit is also focused on making sure staff has access to the vaccine. Rising Ground partnered with two pharmacies to vaccinate employees at its two largest locations: in Brooklyn, where its headquarters are, and in Yonkers, New York, where multiple programs and some administrative functions are sited. It also partnered with a hospital in the Bronx where many other Rising Ground programs are based. Plus, human resources will schedule vaccines for employees to make it convenient and to help staff who have had difficulties scheduling the shots on their own.

“We have a plan that keeps evolving,” she says. “If we just rest on one place or one idea, we leave people behind.”

The employer also is giving workers four hours off per dose to get vaccinated. Although time off is the only incentive currently, Rising Ground has not ruled out other incentives or rewards for employees, Paisley says, like gift cards or holding a biweekly raffle.

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Scores of organizations have been contemplating where they stand on their role with the vaccines, with many mulling plans for if, or how, they will help to get workers vaccinated. Although the EEOC ruled that employers can require employees to get immunized with the coronavirus vaccine, with some accommodation exceptions, most employers are turning to education and encouragement instead. And for good reason: Surveys find that many Americans are reluctant to get vaccinated against COVID-19, despite the fact that is it the only way out of the pandemic, but research finds employees can be swayed by trusted sources, like their employer.

Related: Employers can legally require COVID vaccines–but will they?

“From a business standpoint, it is the right thing to do,” Paisley says of working to encourage vaccination among her employees. “It’s the right thing to do by the organization, by the employees, right thing for the people we support. We can’t take the hands off the wheel … we have to get involved and show that we are involved.”

‘That’s why I’m in HR’

Paisley’s efforts are paying off. So far, nearly 200 employees of Rising Ground have been vaccinated, and HR has scheduled an additional 46 employees for vaccinations, Paisley says, noting the number is likely higher because other employees have signed up for shots on their own and haven’t told HR yet.

Paisley doesn’t intend to take her foot off the gas until everyone gets vaccinated. For her, encouraging vaccination against COVID-19 is just one example of showing her care and commitment to employees–a simple principle that has become all the more important during the pandemic.

“I think about how the pandemic has opened our eyes–employers, especially HR–how important it is to care. Caring is a big part of our work, and also how to extend this care to our employees,” she says. “It may sound a little cliché, but at the end of the day, that’s why I’m in HR. I care about the folks who work here. If from the highest level of our organization, we say, ‘We think this is important and good for your health and good to do our work.’ … when that message gets through and people see that this is genuine care, the impact of that is just great.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.