Human resources expert discusses vaccines and employers

The rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines is posing some thorny questions for U.S. employers

The Associated Press spoke with Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, a group for human resources workers, about the government’s guidance. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does this mean for employers considering vaccination requirements?

A: They all but said, ‘You could do it. You absolutely could mandate a vaccine.’

What they’re saying is, as long as it doesn’t violate Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act) — being, of course, the religious exception — and you consider the Americans with Disabilities Act, and whether there are reasonable accommodations or an undue hardship, then absolutely you can do it. But this tells employers, very much, ‘We’re going to allow you to do it.’

And I compare it to temperature checks. Previously, the EEOC had deemed them inappropriate. But then in April, they changed the rules and all of a sudden you saw employers who had never required them before putting them in the lobby of their building.

Q: Even though many people with COVID-19 don’t get a fever?

This is about trying to get your employees comfortable that it’s safe to come back into the office. I think employers are going to be factoring that in — just as the Department of Transportation did with preflight inspections and security when it was trying to convince people to fly again after 9/11.

Q: Are there certain businesses you think will be more aggressive requiring vaccinations?

A: I think you’re going to see small- and medium-sized businesses take advantage of this disproportionately. Because they are the very companies that cannot afford not to. Think about it: You run a restaurant — you’ve got 25 employees. One of your employees tests positive and transmits it to the rest of the workplace. You will go out of business, period. Patrons aren’t coming in, other employees can’t come in. You have a disaster.

Q: For companies that have had employees working remotely when do you see them coming back into the office?

A: The prevailing thought is fall 2021. And that’s because, while the vaccine is being rolled out currently, it’s only available in very limited batches. And so you can’t mandate a vaccine that you can’t even access right now.

So I think what we’re saying is that for those who are thinking about bringing their people back, it is probably the fall and that will be contingent with a readily available vaccine.

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This story was first published on Dec. 27, 2020. It was updated on Dec. 28, 2020 to correct the name of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.