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Mayer: Don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine strategy? It’s time to make one

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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.

After nearly a year of living in a pandemic world, there’s finally some good news on the COVID-19 front: vaccines that give us a glimpse of a return to normalcy.

But, of course, like everything surrounding COVID-19, it’s not easy: The rollout has been rocky at best, and skepticism and hesitation surround the vaccines. Another complication: Organizations, key in many ways to the success of the vaccines, are slow to implement a COVID-19 vaccine strategy and have yet to decide how or if they will encourage employees to get inoculated, if they’ll provide incentives for them to do so or if they’ll go further and require vaccination among workers.

That’s a problem.

COVID-19 vaccine support is one of the most significant tasks employers have to do all year–and perhaps one of the most important in a lifetime. But most organizations have yet to decide where they stand. Although having a plan of action seems obvious, it’s something most employers have been kicking the can on for the past several months while they waited for news and updates on COVID-19 and watched to see how things played out. Even now, with the vaccines here, most research indicates that the vast majority of employers are still deciding what their role will be, while many are watching what their peers do. But a wait-and-see approach can no longer wait.

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

“This is probably the first time that HR is having to make a choice from the health and wellness perspective of their organization,” Justin Holland, CEO and founder of HealthJoy, a benefits company that works with employers, told me recently. “Companies have to make a stand. They have to decide what side of history they want to be on.”

For organizations that have long preached wellness and health of their employees as a priority, this is a chance to prove it. COVID-19 in general has made apparent which employers have stepped up in response to the many challenges of the pandemic–which ones have really prioritized health and safety by allowing and promoting remote work or by rolling out new benefits to help workers stay healthy, safe and sane during the more-than-tumultuous time. Now, the COVID-19 vaccines are the latest test.

As employees largely look to their employer and company leaders for guidance on important matters, including health, companies have a responsibility to take a stand.

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

It’s a big job and not an easy one: Although vaccination is essentially the only way for companies to safely reopen and for employees to get back to the physical workplace, skepticism and hesitation surround the new vaccines coming out from Pfizer, Moderna and other makers. Recent surveys show as few as half of Americans are determined to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The polarization means that employers–viewed as allies in getting scores of Americans to get the shots–have significant work to do to convince employees to get vaccinated.

One important strategy is citing and amplifying the voices of reputable sources, like medical experts or the CDC, regarding the safety and benefits of receiving a vaccination and the risks of not receiving. I spoke to one HR leader recently who already has launched an aggressive campaign to educate her employees on the merits of the vaccines and how and why the shots will help keep them safe. She’s sending out photos of employees getting vaccinated, making videos and more. Importantly, she says, the strategy is working.

As with other benefits information, frequent communication and transparency on the issue are key. It has to be done repeatedly and in a variety of mediums, from emails to webinars to town halls and videos. One and done is not a strategy that will work, especially if you’re trying to sway workers who are unsure of their vaccine plans. Many employers stepped up in November to make it easier for employees to vote–and it’s arguably even more important to make it easier for them to get vaccinated. Chobani, for instance, announced it’s giving workers time off to get vaccinated, and Dollar General is incentivizing workers to get inoculated with an extra four hours of pay.

A handful of companies have started to make announcements about their vaccination plans, but they are few and far between. Although it will take time for the vaccines to be widely available to most employees, employers can’t wait until it’s time. Messaging, support and a plan need to happen now. Your workers’ lives literally depend on it.