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SHRM president discusses COVID-19 vaccines and response of U.S. employers


WASHINGTON — The rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines poses some thorny questions for U.S. employers: Can they or should they require employees to get the shots?

In the past, the federal government has permitted companies to require flu shots and other vaccinations.

But only this month did the agency with oversight of workplace rules, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, weigh in on the new coronavirus vaccines.

Johnny Taylor Jr.

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.

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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.