KANSAS CITY, MO. – There are currently more questions than answers on how the Biden Administration’s recently announced employer vaccination rules will play out, according to Paula Day, vice president and director of HR compliance consulting with Lockton Companies.

During a North American Meat Institute (NAMI) webinar on Sept. 14, Day said what is clear is private employers with 100 or more employees must require COVID-19 vaccination for their entire workforce or have employees submit to weekly testing. It’s being authorized through a new Emergency Temporary Standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The release date for this is unknown, but it will require paid time off for employees to get the vaccine and recover from any side effects. She said the questions still left to be answered include how employees are to be counted, the effective date, how this will be enforced, and what testing and paid leave options will look like.

When it comes to testing, she said how testing will be administered; if there will be enough tests; who pays for the testing; how testing will be reported; if employees must be paid for their time spent being tested; and how the government will enforce testing all remain to be seen. Because employees must produce a negative test before reporting to work, she said it seems on-site testing isn’t going to be an option for employers.

Despite the unknowns, Day said companies must have their accommodations processes ready for potential religious and medical exemptions. She said a best practice would be to have the same person or group of people at a company work on the accommodations process for consistency. She said the accommodations process must be fact intensive, done on a case-by-case basis, and have plenty of documentation. Typical medical exemptions would include allergies to vaccine ingredients or previous adverse reactions to vaccines. Religious accommodations must establish a sincerely held belief, and the beliefs must be religious and not political in nature. 

Overall, she said employers are concerned about losing employees with these new requirements as well as having potential liability from possible vaccine injury. Another concern is how to handle accommodations.

Day said right now employers can begin communicating with their employees if the new rules will impact their workforce and promise to communicate more information as it becomes available. Additionally, they can ask employees if they are fully vaccinated as well as collect copies of vaccine cards. Providing incentives such as cash, gifts, and paid time off for getting vaccinated are also an option.

These considerations are all coming at a time when the virus continues to spread significantly throughout the country.

Dr. James Lawler, Executive Director of International Programs and Innovation at the Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said the Delta variant has a higher rate of hospitalization, ICU admission, and death than previous strains of the virus. 

“We are really starring down the barrel of a much more severe pandemic,” Lawler said.

To this end, he said the 18-49 age bracket is being hit harder with the Delta variant. Children also have high infection and hospitalization rates with this variant, and they are also helping drive community transmission. Additionally, the variant is more transmissible as the average number of people one sick person typically infects from this strain is seven. That number was three with the original strain of the virus.

He said vaccines still work effectively against the Delta variant as they offer five times reduced risk of infection, ten times reduced risk of hospitalization, and ten times reduced risk of death.

He also said the impacts of the pandemic also continue to vary somewhat in different areas of the country.

“The country doesn’t behave in a uniform fashion,” Lawler said. “Different states, and even different counties within states, have their surges at different times.”