A COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ for Business Owners and Managers

Michael Akin is President of LINK Strategic Partners and Ashley Desing is Director of Strategic Programs at the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Since early 2021, the Board of Trade’s COVID-19 Vaccine Information Task Force, comprised of over 30 leaders who are on the front lines of our region’s public health and economic response to the pandemic, have collaborated around ways to boost vaccination rates across the region and expedite our economic recovery.

We all agree that a well-informed, proactive, and coordinated business community is critical to overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic. It may feel like the pandemic is already over for some, but the region has still not reached herd immunity, and new variants of the virus could cause new spikes in transmission come fall and winter. The region is making good progress, but it is important that the business community continues to take an active role in encouraging all eligible workers to get vaccinated so that we can continue moving forward toward an inclusive economic recovery.

One part of this strategy, which we began implementing in April, has been to give business owners and managers the information they need to set workplace policies and talk to their employees about the COVID-19 vaccine. This effort was especially intended for mid-sized and small businesses that may not have in-house capacity to sort through these legal and public health issues on their own.

Working with Chambers of Commerce across the region, we hosted a series of virtual town hall events. Experts presented information and business managers asked questions. These events were recorded and can be viewed on our website.

Below are a few of the top questions and answers. We hope they are useful to any managers who are still determining their workplace policies or just need a little help talking to their teams.

Note: For the latest information on vaccine efficacy and other public health guidance visit the CDC website

Can an employer require employees to receive the Covid-19 vaccine?

Yes, unless your workers are unionized, in which collective barging agreements should be consulted.

Employers should be aware that employees are legally able to bypass a vaccination requirement if they have a sincerely held religious belief or a medical disability that prevents them from doing so. Employers should consider the costs and benefits of such a policy since it may invite these challenges from some employees.

We also recommend that employers read this article from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for more detail.

Can an employer ask if an employee has been vaccinated and/or require proof of vaccination?

Yes, but this information must be held confidential like any other medical information.

How should employers handle employees who do not want to get the vaccination?

The best approach is to first have a discussion with that employee to find out why they are resistant, and to direct them to helpful information that may address their concerns.  If they have a problematic medical condition or a sincerely held religious belief, they must be excused from a workplace vaccination policy. But they may simply have unanswered questions or misinformation that can be corrected by providing better information.

Can employees be terminated for refusing to get the vaccine?

It may be legal, but it may not be prudent. It is better to talk to them first. Termination should be the last resort.

Can private businesses require customers to show proof of vaccination or wear masks?

In the DMV and most of the United States, yes. There are laws against this in Texas and other states are considering similar legislation.

What liability considerations should employers be thinking about with regard to employees or customers who contract COVID in a business setting?

It is difficult to prove how someone contracted COVID, so it may be difficult for a worker to prove that the employer is liable for their illness. However, employers can protect themselves by being sure they are in full compliance of federal, state, and local regulations and requirements on COVID-19.

Everyone has a workers compensation policy and carrier, so if an employee gets sick, contact your workers compensation insurance provider right away.

Can I tell employees if a co-worker has tested positive for COVID?

You cannot name an employee who has COVID-19. But you can share that an infection has taken place and trigger the contact tracing process in your jurisdiction.

Are employers required to provide paid leave for employees who test positive for COVID or are exposed?

There is no federal law requiring this. DC has an unpaid leave law. Maryland passed the Essential Workers’ Protection Act, which requires companies to provide paid leave during a public health emergency. But that requirement will only be enforced when funding becomes available to help companies pay for it, which is not the case currently.

How should employers bring workers back to the office?

Employers should take some time to assess the differences among their workers. Some may truly need to return to the office to fulfill their duties, and some do not. Some may wish to return to the office, and some may not—some may even have unique circumstances that make a return to work especially perilous or difficult. Treating all employees as a monolith may create unnecessary workforce disruptions. To the extent possible, it is best to be flexible and treat workers as individual cases. It is often not necessary to bring all employees back to the office at the same time.

Can you have only vaccinated people back in the office?

This is a risky move because it creates scenarios where some employees who might have valid reason to not return to the office yet and/or a qualified vaccine exemption may feel they are disadvantaged by not having opportunities to connect with leaders and colleagues face-to-face.

For answers to other questions, especially those that come up in a conversation with employees, be sure to check the Public Health Communications Collaborative’s Answers to Tough Questions About Public Health.

We’d like to especially thank the members of the Vaccine Task Force, the regional Chambers of Commerce, and the following experts for making these town hall’s a success:

  • Councilmember Andrew Friedson, Montgomery County
  • Reggie Jones, Managing Partner, DC Office, Fox Rothschild
  • Mike Neary, Shareholder, Lerch, Early & Brewer
  • Kerry Richard, Vice President & Senior Deputy General Counsel, MedStar Health
  • Dr. Christina A. Stasiuk, DO, FACOI, Senior Medical Director, Cigna Mid-Atlantic
  • Dr. Stephen Thomas, Director, Center for Health Equity, University of Maryland
  • Chuck Walters, Senior Counsel, Labor & Employment, Kaiser Permanente
  • Dr. Glenn W. Wortmann, Section Director of Infectious Diseases, MedStar Washington Hospital Center and Medical Director of Infection Prevention, MedStar Institute of Quality and Safety
  • Dr. Darren Young, DO, MHSA, Department of Adult and Family Medicine, Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, Kaiser Permanente