Until recently, sparse access to the COVID-19 vaccines has rendered discussion of vaccination policies a distant and theoretical exercise for many organizations. The thought process among hesitant employers has largely been that until the majority of their employees were eligible to receive the vaccine, implementing policies governing vaccinations was of minimum importance. For many employers, however, today is that day, as appointments became available for a massive new group of residents and employees age 55 and over.
In two of our prior blog posts we addressed employers’ ability to mandate that their employees be vaccinated for COVID-19, and the pros and cons of doing so. We noted that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has hinted at the general legality of employer vaccine mandates (when such vaccines become more widely available), contingent upon the need to consider granting exemptions and accommodations to employees who decline vaccination for bona fide religious or disability reasons. We have also discussed the wisdom of specific types of employers imposing mandates and developing policies regarding vaccine related issues, and whether “strongly encouraging” vaccination is a wiser course of action than requiring it.
In recent weeks, we have watched the growing (albeit occasionally halting) availability of COVID-19 vaccines, along with various approaches in Connecticut to prioritization of populations to receive vaccines in light of the limited supplies available. The vaccine program initially opened in December to healthcare providers and medical first responders, then expanded in January to include all individuals over the age of 75 and certain residents and staff of select congregate settings, followed by those over the age of 65 beginning in mid-February.
Most recently, on February 22, 2021, Governor Lamont announced a new plan consisting of a largely age-based eligibility schedule. In the latest iteration, the planned schedule is as follows:
- March 1, 2021: Eligibility expands to age group 55 to 64
- March 22, 2021: Eligibility expands to age group 45 to 54
- April 12, 2021: Eligibility expands to age group 35 to 44
- May 3, 2021: Eligibility expands to age group 16 to 34
Importantly, all previously eligible individuals will remain eligible after March 1, 2021. But the availability of vaccines based upon age also raises some additional considerations for employers in weighing their options. For example, could a policy requiring that all persons over the age of 55 be vaccinated on its raise age discrimination issues? In addition, how does one measure “wide availability” for purposes of implementing a vaccine policy?
For the stated purpose of ensuring equitable allocation of the vaccine, Governor Lamont also announced that he is directing Connecticut’s Department of Public Health to set numerical targets and work with vaccine providers to ensure that vaccines are administered to people living in the highest-risk communities in proportion to their populations.
In addition to age-based eligibility, Governor Lamont also announced that public and private Pre-K through Grade 12 school staff and teachers, and professional childcare providers, will be eligible to receive the vaccine in March at dedicated clinics that will be set up specifically for those sectors. Educators and childcare professionals will soon receive information from their school administrators and employers on when and where their dedicated clinics will be provided.
Employers considering any form of vaccination policy, whether on an encouraged or mandatory basis, should consider providing employees with information about the COVID-19 vaccines, including the benefits of vaccination and how and when employees are eligible (and/or required) to obtain it. Organizations should also consider organizing, participating in, or linking employees to dedicated clinics to ensure maximum availability.
If not done already, organizations of all shapes, sizes, and industries should proactively (and quickly) implement comprehensive vaccination policies communicating the organizations’ expectations to employees.