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Mayer: HR leaders need to step up on COVID-19 vaccines

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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 the initial excitement of the COVID-19 vaccine arrival–remember how hard it was to get one?–vaccination rates are waning. After the first people like me were more than eager to get their shot in the arm, many others have stalled, say they’re still thinking about it or that they won’t altogether.

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That news–combined with the relaxed safety precautions, the new mask guidance that allows vaccinated people to shed their masks (and unvaccinated people, too, since no proof of inoculation is required) and the news that many employers are looking to bring workers back into offices–is a problem. Without more buy-in on vaccines, herd immunity won’t happen, COVID-19 infections will linger, workplaces will remain unsafe, and many employees will left vulnerable.

All that being said: It’s time to step up, significantly, on vaccination efforts. And I’m talking to you, employers.

Despite COVID-19 vaccination being one of the most important jobs for HR and company leaders–experts and health officials have pointed to employers as vital in boosting vaccination numbers and encouraging their workers to get the shot–too many organizations are falling short on efforts. Research from TinyPulse finds that a shocking amount of HR leaders say they aren’t prioritizing vaccination: 53% of HR leaders report that COVID-19 vaccine policy is not a priority or is a low priority, 27% percent say it’s a medium priority, and just 20% say it’s a high priority.

“There has been so much talk about vaccines, but from our data, it seems that leaders are not prioritizing vaccine policies,” says TinyPulse CEO and founder David Niu. “HR leaders have their work cut out for them in the next year. Many organizations are already choosing not to mandate vaccine policies, but they will need to determine in-person work policies and what those phased strategies look like for employees returning to work.”

Related‘Shocking’ number of leaders aren’t focused on COVID-19 vaccines

It’s important to note there are great examples of companies that have stepped up to encourage inoculation: Kroger is incentivizing its employees to get vaccinated with a one-time $100 payment, Petco with $75 and Target is providing hourly employees up to four hours of pay–two hours for each vaccine dose–as well as free Lyft rides (up to $15 each way) to get to and from their appointments. Aon is offering all of its some 50,000 employees two days of paid time off for each injection.

Rising Ground, a New York-based human services nonprofit, is a terrific example of an employer turning to a variety of strategies, including frequent education, workshops about vaccine efficacy and safety, social media campaigns, paid time off for inoculation, onsite vaccinations and more. “From a business standpoint, it is the right thing to do,” Roanica Paisley, senior vice president of human resources at Rising Ground, told me recently 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.”

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

Despite these examples, too many organizations have stayed in wait-and-see mode, many simply saying they won’t have a plan or are staying silent on vaccines. After a year of the same rallying cry of prioritizing employee health and safety, this is a chance to prove it.

Financial incentives, education, myth-busting initiatives and paid time off (both to get the vaccine and time off to recover from the side effects) are all important strategies. A combination, though, is perhaps most important. As we’ve seen time and time again with workplace or benefits communication, employees often need repeated and frequent messaging; they need different touches or encouragements; they need to be hit at a time when they need it.

I get it: Somehow the vaccines and COVID-19 have become polarizing topics, and that’s a tough line for employers to walk. But companies have long been engaged in employees’ health–they’re the purveyors of their health insurance, they host walking challenges, they have wellness programs, they offer incentives and rewards for healthy behavior, tobacco-cessation programs and flu shot fairs. COVID-19 only more deeply entrenched employers in their employees’ health and wellness. And the COVID-19 vaccines are no exception.

And now that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has given the green light for employers to offer incentives, education and more for vaccines–guidance many employers were waiting on–there’s no more time to waste. After a year and a half of so much sacrifice and so many challenges, research is adamant that vaccines are our way out. It’s the safest way to get employees back into offices and customers in the door. It’s time for company and HR leaders to step up and make it happen.