Vaccines won’t get us back in the office any time soon

 Vaccines won’t get us back in the office any time soon

What would you do if your boss announced the latest perk at work was free breakfast at the Waffle House?

How about the chance to win a TV in a raffle? Or an Airbnb gift card or a bicycle? 

In the annals of staff benefits, this is relatively meagre stuff, especially considering the strings attached. These are just some of the incentives US employers have launched to tempt reluctant staff to get a Covid vaccine.

So much for the idea that the long-awaited jabs would soon lead to workers swarming back to the office. It turns out that even some nurses and doctors who have seen first-hand the anguish the virus causes are balking at the shots. 

At one veterans’ home in Illinois, 90 per cent of the residents have reportedly been vaccinated but only 18 per cent of staff. Other frontline workers also seem wary. The LA Fire Department is dangling raffle prizes of a Google Nest entertainment system and free Lyft rides to encourage firefighters to have the jab.

There is nothing new about vaccine hesitancy. But it poses a raft of employment dilemmas as governments struggle to end a global pandemic.

Last week I spoke to Charlie Mullins, founder of London’s Pimlico Plumbers, who had just made headlines for becoming one of the first bosses to say he was planning a “no jab, no job” policy for staff.

He told me it wasn’t quite that simple: new hires would have to be vaccinated but if existing workers had solid reasons for declining they would be able to stay on, as long as they were regularly tested. “I wouldn’t dream of forcing anyone,” he said. But once the vaccine was widely available he thinks his system will become the norm.

Employment lawyers are not so sure.

What if an employer wants existing staff to be injected and some refuse? Can they ban them from the office or shop floor? Or force them to switch jobs? Could they legally sack a worker who will not get a shot?

“We’ve never had to consider these sorts of things in modern legal history,” says Libby Payne, a senior associate in the employment team at the Withers law firm in London. “It’s entirely untested legal ground.”

Healthcare clients have already begun to ask her firm what the law does and doesn’t allow. Her chief advice is not to make any snap decisions on “surprisingly complex and difficult” issues.

Employers who want to bar unvaccinated staff from the office must, for instance, consider pregnant women. The UK government advises expectant mothers not to get a Covid jab at present, because the vaccines have not been tested in pregnancy. 

The same goes for staff with allergies or other health conditions that make vaccinations risky and perhaps those who sincerely believe a shot could be harmful. 

If an employee has a bad reaction to a shot required for work, liability problems may loom.

Another knotty question arises if an employer decides it would be best to put vaccinated staff on, say, the shop floor to reassure customers. That might make sense for the business, but not for a worker who spent years working his way up from the cash register to a better-paying desk job.

Even in countries where authorities have been more precise, the situation can be murky. In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance last month that suggests employers can legally require most workers to be vaccinated, barring people with sincerely held religious beliefs or health worries such as allergies. Yet many employers are still nervous about making vaccinations compulsory. That includes one New Jersey police department where nearly a third of officers were struck down by the virus almost simultaneously last year. Its chief is keen to avoid such a disaster again and wants his officers to get inoculated. But as he told a reporter recently, he won’t be ordering them to do it. That reluctance is understandable and it explains why many employment experts doubt the workplace will be returning to normal much before the end of this year.

“I don’t want to be gloomy,” says Ms Payne. “But I think the light is at the end of the tunnel and we’re still very much in the tunnel.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Twitter: @pilitaclark

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