116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When one of Walter Burtis’ employees at the Brass Tap in Cedar Falls received his second COVID-19 vaccine, it came with a reward: a $100 gift card to his choice of Walmart, Amazon or Hy-Vee.
“He was pleasantly surprised when we unleashed this program with corporate,” said Burtis, owner of the craft beer pub franchise in Cedar Falls. “He was like, ’Oh, that’s great. Now I can get my kids their birthday present that’s coming up.”
The incentive, part of a Brass Tap corporate program to encourage employee inoculations, illustrates how businesses eager to recover in a post-pandemic normalcy are striving for ways to make workers and customers feel safe — amid an unfolding legal and political landscape.
“We see how serious this issue is and how it affects our community as a whole,” Burtis said.
A measure in the Iowa Legislature to bar businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations from employees has failed this session to gain traction, but there has not been a prevalent move among Iowa businesses so far to enact such a mandate anyway. Gov. Kim Reynolds has called for a bill or executive order banning “vaccine passports” — generally, a form of on-demand proof that a person has been vaccinated against the disease — but has been vague on whether it would apply only to Iowa governments or to private employers as well.
In the four months since the first Iowans received COVID-19 vaccinations on Dec. 14, 2020, about a third of Iowans age 16 and up have been fully vaccinated. While there still is a long ways to go, businesses are considering what they could — or should — do to best prepare for an economy where most but certainly not all workers and customers have been inoculated against the disease.
Terri Davis, a lawyer and senior vice president at Shuttleworth and Ingersoll focused on employment law, said she has not heard of any employer requiring its workers to get vaccinated.
“What we have seen is most, if not all, employers are choosing not to make it mandatory,” Davis said, “but rather to educate and encourage vaccination.”
Jason Glass, a human resources consultant at his company Glass People Solutions, said that may change after the vaccines go from emergency use authorization to full authorization. But for now, there is “very little evidence” to suggest vaccine requirements are in place.
Davis said employers could legally require it unless a worker has a medical condition or religious belief that inhibits him or her from getting the vaccine Employers are allowed to ask their workers if they’ve been vaccinated, Davis said, although there are some limitations to that.
“They can’t ask anything additional about any medical reason why they may not have been vaccinated,” Davis said. “But they can simply ask, ’If you’ve been vaccinated, please give me your dates of vaccination?’”
In fact, vaccinations may play a role in some companies’ plans to return to the office. Glass said some employers could allow vaccinated employees to return while workers who choose not to get vaccinated must work remotely.
“They may say, ’Well, if you’re going to come back to the workplace, you may need to be vaccinated,’” Glass said. “We’ll have you continue to work from home until you get it.”
Collins Aerospace, the largest private employer in the Corridor, has hosted clinics to improve vaccine accessibility for its employees. Other manufacturing employers, including Whirlpool Amana, have also held on-site vaccinations.
Vaccinations are not required or tracked, Collins Aerospace spokeswoman Pam Tvrdy-Cleary said, but it is part of the company’s voluntary health care incentive program that rewards employees for taking preventive care measures.
“It would be like if you quit smoking,” Tvrdy-Cleary said.
Glass said that kind of incentive is common, especially for larger employers.
“Through health insurance and health care plans or wellness plans that employers have, it has been a pretty standard practice for many of those employers to give incentives,” Glass said.
Employers vary, however, on how exactly they incentivize it.
“Sometimes that is a direct payment,” Glass said. “You might have an employer that says, ’We’ll pick up the tab for flu vaccines,’ or, ’We’ll just provide them at work.’”
Many companies have offered paid time off as an incentive for vaccinations. “I’m seeing that even more than the monetary (incentives),” Glass said, “to at least allow time away from work to make their appointment.”
That includes the restaurant industry, a more than $4 billion a year industry in Iowa before the pandemic and one hit hard with layoffs after the disease first appeared here.
“A lot of restaurant employers are paying people the time it takes to get it done,” said Jessica Dunker, the president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Restaurant Association. “A couple of the places I’ve reached out to, they will give an hour or two hours per vaccine.”
Craig Sundell, general manager of the Coralville Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, said at a Project Better Together webinar that employees receive the equivalent of a half-day’s pay after receiving the second vaccine dose.
Some employers also often include enough time off in case of any adverse reactions to the vaccine, Glass said.
For some industries, it’s also a matter of building customer confidence. Dunker, for instance, said restaurants have been trying to balance employee privacy and “personal choice” with customer confidence.
“There have been restaurants that have talked about doing things like putting a wristband on someone or a sticker on someone that says, ’I’m fully vaccinated,’” Dunker said.
But they’ve held off on those ideas so far, she said.
“Are customers uncomfortable if they see it on one staff member and not on another staff member?” Dunker asked.
While wristbands might not be coming to restaurants in the near future, Dunker said most restaurant employees have been eager to be vaccinated, just like at the Brass Tap.
“We’re face-to-face with people day in and day out," Dunker said. ”They wanted the vaccination as fast as they can possibly get it.”
Sundell, from the Coralville Marriott, expects “most, if not all” employees will get the vaccine. All of the hotel’s leadership has already received the vaccine, he said.
The lack of recent precedent of pandemics leaves many questions for human resource managers who are figuring out how to reach the employees who aren’t eager to be vaccinated.
“It’s just a lot of unknowns,” Glass said. “You’re going to see a lot of different approaches, too.”
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