Vaccine Liability and Your Business
With vaccinations well underway and people ready to get back to "normal" life, there's a hot topic being debated among business owners and CEOs. What is your liability when it comes to vaccines? Can you require your employees to get the vaccine? And if you don't, how could that impact what your clients will expect from you and your business? Obviously, I am not a lawyer (see below for advice on that), but as a business owner, I do want to be aware of what requirements may be in place. It's a thorny topic without easy answers, but here are some things to consider as you form your plan!
Can You Require Vaccinations?
The short answer is yes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said employers may require vaccinations since non-vaccinated employees may pose “a threat” to other employees and to customers or clients. There could be a liability with your clients if you are not able to say that all employees are vaccinated. Many retail and customer-facing industries believe that it's good advertising if they can say that their employees are all vaccinated. Generally, you won't have to accommodate an unvaccinated employee, unless they suffer from a disability or raise a legitimate religious objection.
You can ask if your employee has been vaccinated, and you can ask for proof. But then things get a little sticky. Asking follow-up questions can cause problems under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, so be very careful taking that conversation any further at all. And you want to avoid a HIPPA violation, too! So for example, when you do ask for proof, remind your employee that you do not want to see any other medical info that could be included - you just need to see proof for when they got the vaccine. So if you do have an employee who says they did not get vaccinated and they don't plan to, what's your next step?
Liability for Your Business
I suggest that you consult a labor and employment lawyer to find out what the latest advice is for vaccines and liability. But overall, the key is to be consistent in what you require of your employees. And have a plan for how you'll respond if an employee refuses to be vaccinated. Even if you yourself are vaccine-hesitant, you need to seriously consider the liability because none of this has gone through the courts, so there is no precedent. And an interior design business is not only client-facing, you are going into their homes. There will be more clients who will ask you about vaccinations - guaranteed. Especially if there are more spikes or variants in the pandemic. What if your client accuses your employee of making them sick? Of vice versa? What if a vaccinated employee sues because you're allowing a non-vaccinated person to work right next to them? These are serious questions that you need to think about BEFORE there is an issue! You could also consider Employment Practices Liability Insurance that could help you in any pandemic-related suit.
Carrot vs Stick
Many companies and government agencies are offering incentives to employees to get them vaccinated. You could do the same with an extra vacation day, a gift card, or some sort of bonus. Again, be consistent with all employees on this one, including interns. And document everything, including every conversation you have with an employee about vaccines. Ask someone to sit in on conversations with you, like an HR consultant. The only reasons that employees can state (and must prove) for not getting a vaccination is disability issues or religious beliefs. Political beliefs are not protected reasons.
These can all be emotional and awkward conversations. But YOU are the business owner and you need to protect yourself from any lawsuits or liability. And if you think this won't become a problem, note that there are new lawsuits being filed by grocery store workers, health care workers, and teachers on this very topic. Businesses just haven't opened in a big way, but when they do, there will be more issues. Be proactive, AND keep informed on the latest EEOC and CDC directives!
Employee relations can be tricky. But having the RIGHT employees in place can make all the difference. Am I right?! And... remember that if you are in the hiring process (who isn't right now?!), you may want to ask prospective hires if they are vaccinated, too!
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