Pharmacist injects Robert Champion, of Lawrence, Mass., with a booster...

Pharmacist injects Robert Champion, of Lawrence, Mass., with a booster dosage of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination event in that city.  Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

With the pandemic persisting, nearly one in two organizations have implemented vaccine mandates for employees, according to December survey data from Gartner, a research and advisory firm.

But one question isn't entirely settled: How do you define fully vaccinated?

With the latest surge, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended boosters, but hasn’t changed the definition of fully vaccinated to include boosters.

That doesn't stop companies from mandating boosters, but there are considerations that need to take place, including company culture and potential pushback, experts say.

"The challenge a lot of employers find themselves in is that they want a vaccinated workforce," says Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice. "If people are vaccinated they’re not likely to get as sick and they don’t have to pay higher health insurance costs."

Yet, there’s still much of the workforce that "disagrees with the idea of vaccines," he says, adding, "what companies are hesitant to do is adopt a policy that alienates a third of the workforce" and causes "confusion that creates more frustration and alienation."

CDC figures as of Jan. 30 showed 63.8% of the booster-eligible population fully vaccinated but only 51.8% of those have had a booster too.

Global considerations

Large companies with offices globally are more likely to change their own definition of fully vaccinated to include boosters. A Gartner survey in December showed 8% of U.S. large employers had done that, a number that grew to 20% as of Jan. 19, Kropp says.

This is because many have global workforces and some other countries are enforcing mandates that include boosters. So larger employers are trying to maintain consistency between their workforces in the United States and abroad workforces, he says.

But "we find smaller companies tend to follow the advice of the CDC," Kropp says.

If the CDC officially says fully vaccinated means a booster shot, then he suspects "a lot of companies" will follow suit. In a recent White house press briefing, though, it sounded like the CDC wasn’t changing the definition, but rather "pivoting language" to encourage everybody to be "up to date" with their COVID-19 vaccines.

Regardless, "I do believe an employer can institute a policy mandating boosters, but they wouldn’t have the cover of federal law," says Scott Hecker, senior counsel at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in the Washington office.

Scott Hecker, senior counsel at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in the...

Scott Hecker, senior counsel at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in the Washington office. Credit: Seyfarth Shaw LLP

Still, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that federal anti-discrimination laws don’t prohibit employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated subject to reasonable accommodations that may be necessary due to a disability or sincerely held religious belief, Hecker says. But whether an employer chooses to include a booster depends on multiple considerations such as current vaccination levels, corporate culture and the feasibility of implementing such policies, he says.

Culture and safety issues

Jessica Baquet, chair of the labor and employment law group at Jaspan Schlesinger LLP in Garden City, agrees, noting, she doesn’t see it as much a legal issue as "a culture issue, workplace safety issue and management issue."

In general, employers can implement their own workplace rules as long as they "don’t violate any laws and aren’t applied in a discriminatory manner."

Jessica Baquet, chair of the labor and employment law group...

Jessica Baquet, chair of the labor and employment law group at Jaspan Schlesinger LLP in Garden City. Credit: Jaspan Schlesinger

And employers can justify mandating boosters because it will help reduce serious illness and absenteeism, she says.

Consider that if fully vaccinated and boosted, an employee doesn’t have to quarantine if they’re exposed and asymptomatic, Baquet says — they just have to wear a mask for 10 days. Conversely, if they’re vaccinated and not boosted even though eligible, then the employee would have to quarantine for five days providing they are asymptomatic.

She suggests if employers choose to mandate boosters, they should designate a person in their workforce who understands what the law is and can engage in dialogue if employees request accommodations, she says.

No rush to booster club

Maureen Bradley, director of HR consulting at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates in Jericho, says for the most part, they’re not seeing local clients looking to add boosters to their mandates yet.

While the majority of clients have instituted a mandatory vaccination policy or weekly testing, she said many employers feel adding the booster to mandates can pose complications without the CDC changing the definition of fully vaccinated.

Maureen Bradley, director of HR consulting at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl...

Maureen Bradley, director of HR consulting at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates in Jericho. Credit: Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates, Inc.

"Many can’t find workers to begin with," Bradley says. Now you add the requirement of being vaccinated and boosted. "That’s not something they want to do right now," she says.

It will likely begin with larger firms. For example, RXR Realty, one of Long Island’s largest landlords and one of the early regional businesses to mandate vaccination, confirmed to Newsday it will require the booster as part of that mandate, but didn’t comment further.

Goldman Sachs also according to published reports will require boosters, but didn’t respond to Newsday’s requests for comment.

Tips when considering a booster mandate:

  • Take stock of current vaccination status of employees.
  • Have a clear vaccination policy.
  • Assess how not requiring a booster will impact operations.
  • Keep lines of communication open with employees on health/safety decision-making.
  • Have a process to handle requests for accommodations.
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