Vaccines Play A Role In Promo Businesses’ Decision To Reopen Their Offices

Since COVID-19 vaccines become available in mid-December, as of this writing the U.S. has administered at least the first dose to 13.4 percent of the country’s population and is currently administering 1.4 million shots per day. With the numbers of vaccinated individuals climbing, an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a return to business as normal, may be at hand. These welcome developments have many companies, including those in the promotional products industry, mapping out how best to return to the office and what role, if any, vaccines will play in these decisions.

A survey by Gartner found that 71 percent of organizations will encourage employees to get vaccinations but not require it. However, most respondents don’t expect a return to 2019 working practices even with the vaccine rollout. More than half of respondents think less than 50 percent of their employees will want to return to the workplace, suggesting the hybrid workforce (some employees working in the office, some at home) will likely outlast the pandemic.

“Mandating vaccination is a complex decision from a legal perspective,” says Chris Audet, senior director in the Gartner Legal and Compliance practice. “Any decision to mandate will be dependent on business necessity and must account for exceptions. In some cases, requiring the vaccine may be a strategic decision to create a comparative advantage for the organization.”

Audet adds, “Legal and compliance leaders need to re-evaluate the ‘Band-Aid’ policy fixes put in place in 2020 in areas such as remote work. Many of the changes that seemed temporary at the time have become established ways of working, and it’s crucial to ensure that the legal policies and procedures put in place at the start of the pandemic are suitable for the long term.”

Promotional products companies are managing the return to normal in ways that best fit their state and local regulations and their individual situations. Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, CEO of Stevensville, Michigan, distributor CE Competitive Edge, says, “We brought everyone back to the office over the summer and then in mid-November, we had to send people back home because our governor and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidelines on what could be open and closed. Originally, these were to expire in February, but the expiration date has been moved to March 28. We will bring our team back as soon as these guidelines are lifted and if we feel like we won’t be sending everyone back home again because of a spike in the virus. Our team has done well working from home, but we miss the synergy of having everyone in the office. We have found it best to adopt the CDC guidelines for opening the office and returning to the office.”

Tomasini adds, “We will not require vaccinations to return to the office. We will continue the safety protocols that were established in June 2020.”

Working in the office is optional at some industry companies and for those employees who do come in, procedures and practices are in place to allow for social distancing and other safety measures. Drew Davis, MAS, president and owner of distributor Specialty Incentives in Denver, Colorado, says, “For several months now we have been following a schedule where salespeople are assigned specific days of the week where they can come into the office. We specifically looked at office locations within our space and divided days up so that there would be minimal headcount and physical space between those who might come on their specified days. We have relocated some workspaces within the building as well to ensure distance between people while working. People are not required to come into the office on their assigned days, but with our schedule, it establishes consistency and confidence of a safe work environment.”

Regarding vaccinations, Davis, adds, “We feel Colorado has done a very good job of communicating and executing its vaccine plan. I have confidence in our team to make the best vaccination decision for their individual well-being. Due to the continued uncertainty of whether an employer can require vaccination it is not yet something Specialty Incentives has made a decision on.”

Dawn Ruler, MAS, sales manager at Lewiston, Maine-based Geiger, says, “Geiger will follow state mandates, but I think their decisions are also based on comfort factors. After June, I think we will be able to travel, provided we are personally comfortable with it. Right now, we are not hearing if we will be required to get the vaccine, but I travel quite a bit. That decision may be based on airline rules and/or other states' rules.”

Local and state officials’ decisions are the lynchpin of many companies’ decisions to reopen their offices. Harvey Mackler, MAS, president of Tampa, Florida-based supplier GEMPIRE, says, “To us at GEMPIRE, the first issue has to be the school system. Once all the schools in our districts are open, we will require employees to work in the office. In addition, once an employee is eligible for a vaccine, we will require it unless there are legal, medical or religious issues prohibiting it.”

Claudia St. John, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, president of Affinity HR Group, Inc., PPAI’s affiliated human resources partner, notes that should businesses decide to mandate that employees get vaccinated for COVID-19, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled that it is within their right to do so. In December 2020, it issued guidance stating clearly that a COVID vaccine, administered by an employer or by a third-party administrator on behalf of an employer, is not a medical examination and is permissible. While the EEOC has deemed such a requirement permissible, it stated that employers should have a well-articulated business reason for requiring the vaccine, such as the need to protect the health of employees or clients, or the need to travel, work with vulnerable populations, or work in close quarters with others.

The EEOC also cautioned that employers must provide “reasonable accommodation” to employees who either are unable to receive a vaccine due to a medical condition or due to a “sincerely held religious belief.” A reasonable accommodation may include allowing an employee to work from home, isolate from other workers or significantly adjust work duties to provide protections from the general employee population. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers must allow reasonable accommodations such as these as long as providing the accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” for the employer.

“Our advice for employers is to take steps toward encouraging vaccines before they decide to mandate them,” says St. John. “For a number of reasons, employees may be reluctant to get a vaccine—either because of legitimate health concerns or religious beliefs, or because of personal beliefs, privacy issues and/or political concerns. While mandating the vaccine may be ultimately appropriate, we advise employers to encourage vaccines as a first step.”

St. John suggests that business leaders can encourage vaccinations as part of a larger workplace wellness campaign, supported by goals and challenges and positive incentives; provide educational campaigns for employees to address their concerns, including inviting a medical professional to address employees’ confidential health concerns; give employees time off with pay to obtain the vaccine and, if necessary, to convalesce from the inoculation, and also to lead by example by taking the first vaccine and celebrating the first step toward beating the pandemic.

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