Should Financial Institutions Require Employees to Get Vaccinated?

Some people want to return to the office (most don't) but everyone agrees they want life to go back to normal, although not all are vaccinated. Given that dynamic – and as a new Covid variant threatens the pandemic horizon – is your institution ready for an office full of employees?

Does your financial institution have a plan in place for vaccinated employees? How about the workers that haven’t yet received the vaccine (or refuse to)? Can you lift mask mandates and social distancing guidelines for all of them?

People are still uncertain about returning to the office as the summer of 2021 marks a year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over half of banking leaders polled by KPMG say they are concerned not all their employees will have access — or receive — the Covid vaccine, “jeopardizing their operations and competitive advantage.”

People across the U.S. continue to get vaccinated, although the pace is uneven. The bank CEOs KPMG surveyed say that, in order to return to a pre-Covid normalcy, at least 50% of the population need to be fully vaccinated and there also needs to be a “significant drop” in infection rates in key markets.

If these two factors are indeed an indicator of normalcy in the banking industry, the world is on the right track. Almost half of the United States’ population is fully vaccinated, and the Biden administration announced in early August that its goal of having at least 70% of eligible adults with at least one shot had been met.

That doesn’t mean the fight is over. The Delta variant of Covid-19 is inciting widespread fear, with headlines about the CDC suggesting vaccinated populations can still get infected with — and carry — the Delta variant, leaving banking executives uncertain about what’s next.

Some of the United States’ largest banks are even backpedaling on the dates when they would institute return-to-office protocols. CNN reported in early August that both Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank were pushing back their dates — Wells Fargo says October is more likely and U.S. Bank has yet to announce a return date.

To make matters worse, as federal (and state) guidelines change with the tides, banks and credit unions are stuck in that familiar “rock and a hard place” scenario, left wondering where the legality and ethics of mandating a vaccine start and end.

Some of the largest financial institutions have already determined when and how employees are returning to work — some requiring their employees to update them on their vaccine status and others looking into vaccination requirements for their employees to return to the office.

( Read More: What a Hybrid Workplace Means for Banking )

But for the rest, many are still wrestling with how best to handle employees coming back into executive offices and other facilities.

Are Banks Issuing Vaccine Mandates?

A lot of noise is coming from corporations outside banking, which have publicly demanded their employees get their Covid shot. Even President Biden took a sweeping shot by announcing in a July 29 statement that “every federal government employee and onsite contractor will be asked to attest to their vaccination status.”

Google took the initiative just before the White House statement, demanding any onsite employee be vaccinated. Other large companies, such as Tyson Foods, followed suit. The meat packaging company announced it expects to have its workforce of 120,000 employees fully vaccinated by Nov. 1.

Adam Maier, a banking and finance attorney at Stinson LLP in Minnesota, tells The Financial Brand he has yet to run into any financial institutions — big or small — who have required their employees be vaccinated.

He explains that, because financial institutions have been in the unique position of being deemed an “essential business,” they’ve remained open to varying degrees — unlike other businesses, which were shut down, especially during the pandemic’s early stages.

The Financial Brand did its own informal scan and could only find one financial institution instituting vaccine mandates for in-house employees: Morgan Stanley. CNBC said the investment bank would keep staff from returning to its New York City and Westchester County (N.Y.) offices until they were fully vaccinated.

Out in Front:

So far, Morgan Stanley may be the only financial institution to have required staff to be vaccinated if they return to certain offices.

That fact that almost no financial institutions are requiring a vaccinated workforce may simply be because people are already getting vaccinated en masse. One institution Maier works with, for example, only has a minimal number of employees not vaccinated.

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“I’m skeptical banks are actually going to [require employees to be vaccinated], given how a large percentage of their constituents are already vaccinated,” he maintains. “I was talking to one bank the other day that said — out of their 70 or 80 employees — only about six hadn’t been vaccinated. It wouldn’t make sense to turn it into a make-or-break issue.”

Here is what a few large institutions have said on the subject:

JP Morgan

“We strongly urge all of our employees to be vaccinated because we think it protects you, your friends and family, your fellow employees, and the community at large.”

  — Jamie Dimon, CEO at JP Morgan

Bank of America

“All U.S. employees will have the option to use two half days (up to four hours each) of paid time off to complete coronavirus vaccination appointments in 2021. After you’ve been vaccinated, please ensure you have completed theVaccination Status tool. Of course, we will keep this information confidential.”

Wells Fargo

“Employees do not have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to return to the office, but they also cannot use their unvaccinated status to keep working at home.”

Goldman Sachs

“If you do not report your vaccine status to Goldman, your ID card will not work to enter the building. The entrance [into] the building is contingent on you reporting your vaccine status.”

PNC

“Those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 won’t have to wear face coverings unless required by state or local health orders or if they choose to wear one. Unvaccinated employees and contractors will still need to wear masks unless eating or drinking.”

( Read MoreCovid’s Lasting Impact on Banking Remains Unclear )

Can We Require Staff to Be Vaccinated?

Employers can indeed require their employees be vaccinated, according to Maier, although the attorney says he is skeptical it really will ever happen, given how many employees and customers are already vaccinated. But, it could happen in the next few years.

“If any banks are going to do it,” he says, “it’s going to be after the vaccination is fully approved by the FDA — if it’s going to happen.” (All the Covid vaccines were still under emergency use authorization status as of early August.)

For any institution that does proceed with a vaccine mandate, Maier recommends the requirement be implemented on a non-discriminatory basis.

That goes to the actual result versus the intent, he explains. For example, “If that means that 20% of your employees are Hispanic and 10% are African American — and the people that this really affects are the Hispanic and African American employees — it could be deemed discriminatory in its impact.”

Avoiding Trouble:

If your institution does proceed with a vaccine requirement, ensure the language and intent of the mandate is not discriminatory.

If financial institutions decide to go with the requirement approach, Maier says there is one easy way to get employees to get vaccinated: incentives.

But the incentives can’t be coercive or manipulative, he explains. This was outlined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in a May 28, 2021 update to its COVID-19 Technical Assistance Guide. For instance, the EEOC says “a very large incentive could make employees feel pressured to disclose protected medical information.”

Examples of incentives that would be acceptable could be small blocks of time off to get the vaccine, gift cards or drawings for prizes, Maier says, whereas a massive bonus in the thousands of dollars would be cause for concern.

Is It Better To Just Ask If They’ve Been Vaccinated?

Banks and credit unions could be walking a tightrope if they proceed with vaccine mandates, which is why most financial institutions are taking another approach, instead asking their employees to report whether they’ve received the vaccination.

But financial institutions could go about this wrong too if they’re not careful. Executive teams at banks and credit unions may be worried that even asking about such a contentious topic could lead to a lawsuit.

Alex Castro of the Fisher Phillips law firm, writing for legal intelligence publication J.D. Supra, says that financial institutions are free to ask if an employee has received a vaccine as it’s “not likely to elicit information about a disability and thus, is not a disability-related inquiry.”

( Read More: Is Your Financial Institution Ready for Tough COVID Vaccine Questions? )

However, it’s tricky ground to maneuver — follow-up questions could prompt disability-related inquires. For instance, Castro recommends banks and credit unions not ask why an employee didn’t receive the vaccine.

Castro also maintains banks and credit unions continue to think about OSHA’s rules, which they say, state that “COVID-19 infections may constitute occupational illnesses subject to occupational injury and illness record-keeping requirements. Employers thus may be subject to reporting and recording obligations under federal OSHA and state equivalent requirements.”

At the end of the day though, it’s all about treating employees like people, Maier says, adding “if they’re not getting the vaccine, there’s probably a reason behind it.”

“Treat your employees how you want to be treated,” he continues. “Try to work with people and provide something that might encourage them to get it without being coercive or, frankly, rude.”

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