As the Centers for Disease Control and other health authorities have recommended that everyone get a flu shot this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers are wondering if they can require seasonal flu vaccinations for their staff.
The CDC and the medical community recommend it in order to minimize the chances of double-infection of both the seasonal flu and COVID-19.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more than a decade ago issued guidance asserting that employers can require their workers to get influenza shots. But, employment law specialists recommend that the need for vaccinations be job-related (think nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians) and, if it’s not, that employers strongly recommend it instead.
A recent study by Mercer LLC found that:
- 62% of employers are providing special communications on the importance of flu shots this year.
- 60% of employers will cover 100% of the flu shot cost, be that at the provider’s office, a pharmacy or other location.
- 34% said they would provide indoor on-site flu shots.
- 10% said they would provide on-site drive-up flu shots.
- 8% said they would provide outside on-site flu shots.
Besides the risk of double-infection, health care practitioners say flu shots are extremely important this year because the symptoms of the two viruses are so similar that it would be difficult to tell if someone has influenza or COVID-19.
Additionally, if someone contracts the flu, they will be more susceptible to also catching COVID-19―and perhaps dealing with worse symptoms as a result.
Some employers have experience in administering and recommending flu shots among their workers during a pandemic: the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. While that flu strain was not as deadly as the coronavirus, many employers set up flu vaccination programs.
Mostly they recommended but did not require, that their workers get vaccinated. And many companies offered the vaccination for free.
The CDC estimates that some 60 million Americans contracted H1N1, and 12,000 of them died from the disease. Comparatively, as of mid-October this year, 210,000 Americans had died from COVID-19, according to the agency.
What can an employer do?
The biggest takeaway from the EEOC and employment law specialists is that companies can and should recommend that their employees get flu shots, but not require them to.
If you require them to do so, you could have conflicts with personnel for different reasons:
If you can’t show that vaccination is a business necessity, you may find yourself in a difficult position if an employee refuses due to medical reasons or religious beliefs. At that point, you could be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Also, some of your employees may be “anti-vaxxers” who believe that vaccines are harmful. That could set up a fight you may not want to get embroiled in.
If you decide to strongly recommend shots, you may want to consider incentivizing your employees by making the vaccinations free.
If you have the resources, you can also contract with a clinic or hospital to have staff come to your facility and administer the vaccination. Or you can offer to refund employees the cost of vaccinations they get at the doctor’s office, pharmacy or other location. Many health plans will also offer free flu vaccination.