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Creating A Safe Post-Pandemic Workplace

Credit: StockSnap/Pixabay
Credit: StockSnap/Pixabay

Companies are beginning to bring employees back to the office after more than a year of remote work. But as COVID-19 vaccination rates slow and the Delta variant spreads, a return to work may mean adjusting to a new normal.

Before welcoming you back, your employer may ask you for proof of vaccination. That’s legal, though there is a common misconception that it violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a federal health privacy law.

Diane Hoffmann, the founder and director of the Maryland Healthcare Ethics Committee Network, said HIPAA forbids your employer from asking your physician for your medical records.

“Your employer could, though, ask you for proof of vaccination, even though they couldn't ask your healthcare provider for that information,” she said.

As for vaccine mandates, that isn’t something Hoffmann necessarily recommends for employers outside the medical field.

“You don't want to have some kind of backlash where people are forced to do something that they don't want to do,” she said.

Hoffmann said an employee who refuses to get a vaccine despite a mandate shouldn’t be fired. Instead the employer can require they get regular testing for COVID or, if possible, work remotely.

She added that employers may want to offer paid time off for people right after they get the vaccine, regardless of whether they develop side effects.

“Those kinds of things can go a long way,” Hoffmann said. “Or even providing transportation for people who may lack that.”

Dr. Rupali Limaye, an expert on vaccine hesitancy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said vaccine mandates are reasonable at hospitals, where staff are used to getting mandatory vaccines like the flu shot. In June, hospitals in Maryland formed a consensus agreement to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for employees.

Limaye, like Hoffmann, said for other employers, incentives are the way to go.

“The less restrictive we can be is going to be better,” Limaye said. “That's going to be less likely to erode trust.”

Joseph DeMattos Jr. is the CEO and President of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland (HFAM), a trade group that represents long term care facilities.

DeMattos says the average vaccination number for employees in facilities is 74%.

Some long term care facilities have mandates. DeMattos said those will become more and more common when the FDA fully authorizes the COVID-19 vaccine. Right now, it’s under emergency authorization.

“As we get to full authorization, I think it'll be no different from the annual vaccine, required with a very specific religious or medical waiver,” he said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has also said that full FDA authorization could build vaccine confidence among people who are taking a “wait and see” approach.

Otherwise, DeMattos said, less restrictive strategies have been helpful, especially what he calls “peer to peer outreach.” For example, a pregnant nurse who has been vaccinated, may help alleviate the concerns of another pregnant nurse who isn’t vaccinated, with empathy and trust.

DeMattos says facilities have also used incentives, like bonuses or time off, but that incentives alone would not be effective.

“You have to meet people where they are in terms of their feelings,” he said.

Getting the right incentives can be tricky. Wendy De La Rosa is an assistant professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She studies behavioral economics -- that is, how and why people make decisions.

De La Rosa said money alone might not be the most effective motivator.

Say, for example, you’re moving and need help from a friend. You offer to buy pizza afterward. The friend can look forward to a free meal and spending quality time with you after moving.

But say you offer the friend $15 instead and call it a day.

“All of a sudden that changes the dynamic of the relationship,” De La Rosa said. “Now your friend is probably going to be thinking, well, is my time worth $15? Do I really want to push this heavy couch and pivot it upstairs for 15 bucks?”

In other words, she said, people want rewards that feel meaningful. That’s why your employer offering you a three day holiday may feel more rewarding than a one-time cash payment.

“People just want to spend time with their families. People aren't dying to spend time at work,” De La Rosa said. “We want to live out our values.”

Employers, she said, need to take an active role in ensuring a safe return to normal.

Or rather, a new normal. At a U.S. Chamber of Commerce briefing on Delta variants last week, Nellie Brown, an industrial hygienist from Cornell University, suggested a safe post pandemic workplace means a cultural shift, where workers feel they can prioritize their health.

“We don't want people to feel they're so loyal to their job they need to come in even when they don't feel well,” Brown said.

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.