There are many reasons an insurance agency would implement COVID-19 vaccine requirements in their office. Workplace safety is usually the primary concern, and if your agency is also a federal contractor, the Biden administration currently requires it if you employ over 100 people. (Although that rule now faces a legal challenge.)
Whether you decide on a vaccine requirement, implementing it requires communication and sensitivity to your employees. Here are six best practices for requiring mandatory vaccination at your agency.
Check Local Laws
Your state or city may not allow employers to require vaccines for COVID. Currently, 12 states do not allow this practice. They include Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.
These state laws contain subtle differences. For example, the Montana law prohibits discrimination based on COVID vaccination status. Employers cannot refuse employment or discriminate against employees on a term, condition, or privilege of employment based on their vaccination status. However, other state laws place exceptions for public-facing positions and health care providers who face the highest risk of the pandemic.
If you have questions about your local laws, it is best to consult with an attorney before implementing vaccine requirements.
Communication about vaccine requirements must take two steps: 1) Announce that you will implement or are considering implementation of a COVID vaccine requirement, and 2) Announce the vaccine deadline well ahead of time. For example, if you plan to start your vaccine mandate on February 2, 2022, announcing that intention in November or December is optimal.
There are two reasons to take this approach. It takes two weeks from the second dose of Pfizer or Moderna or the one dose of Johnson & Johnson for vaccines to be fully effective. If your employee opts for Pfizer or Moderna, they must wait three weeks between the first and second vaccination. If you announce a vaccine mandate to take place in one week, you will not enjoy the full efficacy of a vaccinated workforce.
Second, it is considerate. Your agents and clerical staff must set aside time to receive the vaccines and wait out any side effects. While serious side effects are rare, flu-like symptoms may keep parts of your workforce at home. They need to plan for this absence and conclude critical matters before vaccination.
You may have employees who cannot receive vaccines for religious, disability, or health reasons. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires you to offer reasonable accommodation to those with medical conditions, as long as they don’t compromise public health. On religious protection, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires that you offer the same accommodation to those with a sincere religious belief opposing vaccination.
Create procedures and criteria for establishing these exemptions. For example, if an allergy or health condition prevents an employee from receiving vaccines, their doctor can verify this condition in a note on their official letterhead. The same is possible for religious exemptions; employees can bring in documentation from their pastor or priest.
But even with these exemptions, you still want a safe work environment. Consider requiring weekly testing for those receiving medical and religious accommodations, so COVID stays out of your office. However, if you enact compulsory COVID-19 testing, your state employment laws likely require you to pay for them.
If you decide to enact weekly testing, one approach is to purchase and provide home antigen testing kits for those employees who cannot vaccinate. They can administer the test weekly at home, and if it is positive, follow up with a PCR test. But as long as the test is negative, they can go to work.
If providing tests is not within your agency budget, consider continuing to offer work-from-home. You likely discovered some employees work better from home and enjoy only showing up at the office once or twice a week for meetings and connections. Allow anyone to choose this option; workers who do not have to be at the office as frequently can limit testing to those weeks they visit the office.
Keep Records Safe
If you ask for proof of vaccination or negative test results, you must keep that information safe. Store any medical information away from an employee’s personnel file. Mark it confidential and share it with only need-to-know personnel.
If you store these documents electronically, there are still precautions. Consider password-protecting any documents with employee medical information or placing them on a secure password-protected drive.
Keep the Masks
Vaccination is an excellent preventative measure, but it is not entirely foolproof. There is still an infection risk, especially if you have employees who cannot receive a vaccine or see a continuous flow of customers in your office.
For these reasons, face coverings are likely here to stay. Keep your mask mandates, even for vaccinated employees. Agents should wear masks when they interact with customers or at meetings with multiple employees. If you have an employee waiting for COVID test results, require a mask or consider offering sick leave to help them stay home and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Follow Through with Consequences
Unfortunately, you may have workers who choose not to follow your vaccination policies. Even if you believe your employees will cooperate, prepare for those who refuse.
Consequences for unvaccinated employees may include unpaid suspension and termination. You must communicate these impacts when you design your policies and procedures for vaccine requirements. You must be able – and willing – to enforce them too.
Start by assuming the best of your agents. Within four weeks of your mandate deadline, send notice to employees who must submit proof of vaccination or exemption. You may receive an apology because someone kept forgetting to scan their CDC vaccine card or kept postponing that vaccine appointment. The notice gives employees time to rectify the situation and make vaccination or documentation a priority.
When employees flat-out refuse, you have a couple of options. Unpaid suspension is one option; place employees on one-month suspension until they receive the vaccine or secure a credible exemption. After one month, if they still fail to comply, terminate them. Other businesses fire employees outright, usually due to risk and if an office recently experienced an outbreak.
Consequences depend on what you feel comfortable enforcing and the overall circumstances of your office. If you mainly have Zoom meetings with clients and few client-facing activities, the risk is much lower than if you practically have a revolving door of customers. You may just keep those employees working from home full-time or move them to isolated positions within your agency. You have options and do not have to take the most extreme actions.
But if you have several employees with medical exemptions and health vulnerabilities, you may have no choice but to let go of unvaccinated workers.
COVID-19 vaccine requirements at your agency may effectively protect your workers but also bring in additional complications. Only you, as the agency owner, know whether that effort is worth it. Smaller agencies, where you already know everyone is vaccinated, do not have the same need for mandates as a larger agency with 100 employees.
As you navigate through these challenging COVID times, the American Agents Alliance is here to guide you through it. Our E&O insurance products, hiring and development services, and free legal hotline are available no matter your choice regarding vaccination at your agency. Learn more about us and become a member today to enjoy these benefits.