Is Your Financial Institution Ready for Tough COVID Vaccine Questions?

Privacy and liability issues complicate banking's reaction to vaccine availability. The suggestion of a mandatory vaccination policy, even on a limited basis, generates pushback within the industry. But being unprepared to deal with employee and customer questions could prove equally risky.

Despite some early distribution snags in the rollout of the first two COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S., the excitement over the earlier-than-expected availability of these two remedies remains generally high. “Generally” because roughly two in five Americans will decline to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them, and even more don’t want to be among the first to take it.

For financial institutions, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, in addition to their potential to improve the health prospects of millions of people, hold the promise of 1. a return to in-person banking to a far greater degree than has been the case since the outbreak of the pandemic, 2. a return to in-office work for many of those employees who have been working remotely for months and 3. the beginning of a return to more normal business conditions.

None of that will happen quickly, however, because the mass distribution of the vaccines is expected to take months. Banking employees — even customer-facing personnel — despite being considered “essential,” are in the third level of priority as recommended by the Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Ahead of them are health care workers and people in long-term care facilities (Phase1a), followed by people over 75 and frontline workers in emergency services, education, food, agriculture, manufacturing, corrections, postal delivery, public transit and grocery stores.

CDC's recommended COVID vaccine allocation plan

That lower priority does have an upside: It gives bank and credit union executives more time to wrestle with many questions and issues relating to the COVID vaccines. Perhaps the biggest question is: “Can we — and should we — require any, all or some of our employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19?”

Mandating Vaccines: Pros and Cons

Some in the industry may wonder “Can we mandate that employees get vaccinated?” In mid-December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance noting that employers can require workers to get vaccinated as long as they accommodate employees who object on the basis of a disability or because of religious beliefs.

Even before that guidance was issued, most HR experts agreed that mandating vaccines was permissible with certain conditions. “As COVID-19 vaccines become available, many employers will have a strong case for requiring employee vaccinations, so long as their vaccination policies have certain exceptions, are job-related and are consistent with business necessity,” states an article on the website of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Ultimately, however, it is the states that decide whether companies can mandate employee vaccinations, several sources observed.

As has been widely discussed for months: Effective vaccines, if widely used, are expected to be a key element to halting the spread of the coronavirus, and helping to avoid the necessity of additional lockdowns with their enormous economic and human toll. So far, however, evidence suggests that there is little inclination among businesses to impose mandatory employee vaccination.

One reason is that employees may not support it. A survey of about 9,000 U.S. workers by CNBC found that over two out of five (41%) oppose requirements that all employees be vaccinated before they return to work.

“In highly packed environments like factories … [vaccination] is very likely going to need to be mandatory,” Laura Boudreau, Assistant Professor of Business and Economics at Columbia Business School told The Financial Times. “For office-based businesses that have transitioned nearly entirely to remote workplaces it’s not so obvious that a mandatory vaccine policy is going to be the best policy.”

Discover Financial Services will encourage as many employees who can safely get the vaccine to do so, but won’t require it as a condition of staying employed, according to Andy Eichfeld, Chief Human Resources and Administrative Officer. “That’s just not how we operate,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

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Concerns that Are Prompting ‘No Action’

In his work as Chief Strategy Officer for CenterState Bank, Chris Nichols is in touch with a wide range of banks and credit unions. He tells The Financial Brand that he found that none of the institutions he’s contacted were preparing for the impact of COVID vaccine distribution, much less mandating it among employees.

Nichols, who is an advocate of the vaccine as the means to get back to normal business and living conditions, was surprised at the almost unanimous pushback he got on the subject of requiring vaccinations. “I figured there would be a split debate on either side of that issue. There really wasn’t, even on the subject of having a COVID vaccine policy in place.” As a result, he put together a detailed treatment of the subject in one of his Correspondent Division blogs.

No one argued that customers would feel safer if they knew that all bank employees — or at least the ones they interact with in person — had been vaccinated, Nichols states. The concerns largely centered on the issues of privacy and liability, particularly in regard to keeping track of who has had the vaccine.

“I would love to be able to say, ‘Our branches are not only sterilized, but all our employees have been vaccinated’.”
— Chris Nichols, CenterState Bank

The liability could play out in a couple of ways. On the one hand, if a mandatory vaccination policy is not imposed, employees may allege that the employer has failed to provide a safe and healthy work environment, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, notes Alissa Kranz, an attorney with Lieser Skaff Alexander, in the SHRM article mentioned earlier. While such a development would be breaking new legal ground, according to Lindsay Burke, an attorney with Covington, that could change if public health authorities adopt the view that employers should not permit unvaccinated employees into the workplace.

On the other hand, liability could arise from requiring a vaccine if the vaccine “goes sideways and creates harm to the employee,” states Jay Rosenlieb, an employment law attorney at the Klein DeNatale Goldner, on the AARP website. “That’s going to probably be a workers compensation claim against the employer,” he says.

In addition, Nichols reports that many of the executives he’s been in touch with want to see how things play out with the vaccines, not unlike what many people feel as individuals.

Pew Research notes that while intent to get the vaccine rose in its most recent research, there is considerable wariness among consumers about being among the first to receive the vaccine: 62% of the public say they would be uncomfortable doing this.

The speed of the development of a COVID-19 vaccine — compressed into months rather than the usual years — and the politics that have accompanied it add to the reasons employers may be unwilling to make vaccination a requirement, L.J. Tan, Chief Strategy Oofficer for the Immunization Action Coalition, told AARP.

The Risk of Wait-And-See

Given all the above, a cautious approach to COVID vaccinations would seem prudent. However, a one-line response to an online article in the Wall Street Journal illustrates the risks in that approach:

At a Journal event in December, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson said the company hadn’t yet decided whether the vaccines should be required. “We need to respect personal freedoms and liberty,” he said.

Replied the commenter: “Looks like I won’t be staying at Marriott Hotels when travel starts up again.” How many people will feel the same about banking in-person at an institution that takes a similar approach as Marriott?

As Nichols observes, having all customer-facing employees vaccinated could be a competitive advantage. “I would love to be able to say, ‘Our branches are not only sterilized, but all our employees have been vaccinated.’ Branches suffer enough right now,” he states. “If you want your branches to survive, you need traffic back in there as soon as possible.”

What Banks and Credit Unions Can Do (or Prepare for) Now

Even if, as earlier comments suggest, most financial institutions will hold off before requiring vaccinations (absent some public policy mandate), there are many steps they can take now. With vaccines now being distributed, banks and credit unions can no longer put off creating a plan of action for dealing with COVID vaccine issues, Nichols asserts.

Some specific suggestions:

Make COVID vaccines part of wellness program. Just as most banks and credit unions include flu shots as part of their health and wellness programs, the COVID vaccine should likewise be included. Education should be part of this, updated frequently as more information is gathered.

Consider incentives to take the vaccine. Some employers plan to provide 401(k) or other cash incentives to employees, as they do with other wellness practices.

Think about establishing a vaccination site within the institution. This may not be possible until later in 2021, but planning is needed now, otherwise supplies of the vaccine may not be available. Such a site could be just for your own employees or also a way to assist the community.

Offer paid time off to get vaccinated and cover the cost. This benefit could also include time off to deal with any side effects that certain individuals may experience.

Educate yourself about accommodation requirements for employees who decline to take the COVID vaccine on religious grounds or because of a disability, in preparation for the possibility of required vaccinations. Begin with the EEOC guidelines mentioned above.

Set up a vaccine marketing program. Financial institutions have a strong stake in the success of the COVID vaccination campaign. Begin now to plan for what type of information the institution will disseminate in a credible and timely manner.

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