Updating Employee Handbooks to Address Remote Work and COVID Vaccinations is Vital for Companies’ Continued Success

by Curtin & Heefner LLP

Remote Work

Remote work is here to stay. Gartner estimates that “remote workers will represent 32% of all employees worldwide by the end of 2021, up from 17% of employees in 2019.” As the post- pandemic workplace evolves, the need for clear, non-discriminatory remote work policies is key for continuing success in the re-emerging economy. As recent events have shown, working remotely can be just as much a challenge for employees to navigate as it is for those on a supervisory level. Making an amendment to an employee handbook can make expectations clear for employees and leads to less business interruption and more efficiency.

Topics to cover in a remote work policy are: (i) eligibility for remote work; (ii)how to access company-wide software remotely (if applicable; (iii) standards for tracking time of hourly employees; (iv) systems that are in place for submitting work each business day; (v) any change in contact information or “chain of command” for working remotely; and (vi) expectations on how virtual meetings should be conducted.

New policies should be made carefully and implemented quickly, and be backed by your legal team and be compliant with prevailing labor laws.

COVID Vaccination Policies

“Even as tens of thousands of offices and workplaces demand that their staff vaccinate themselves against COVID-19, many continue to operate on something of an honor system. This means that staffers ‘have few ways to be sure theirco-workersarefollowingtherules.’” The situation “is creating confusion and complexities in workplaces as nervous workers ponder the vaccine statuses of those declining to wear masks. Many say they want "more clearly defined rules and transparency around vaccination status beyond simply taking a leap of faith.”

In light of the above, vaccination policies have become a necessity for businesses to resume full-scale operations. Vaccination policies can be either mandatory or voluntary. Either approach can raise issues for employees. For example, some employees feel strongly that their employers should mandate vaccines before returning employees to the workplace to protect everyone's health and safety.

Alternatively, other employees may think that a mandatory policy, or even requests to determine vaccination status, are an invasion of their privacy.

If an employer intends to mandate COVID-19 vaccination, the policy should first clearly identify the scope of the policy and which employees it applies to. For example, employers may want to mandate COVID-19 vaccination only for certain job categories but not others, depending on the level of interaction those positions have with other individuals. Such policies should include the rationale for making the policy mandatory (e.g., protecting employees' health and safety).

Further, the policy also should clearly identify how employees will be required to demonstrate proof of their immunization. The employer should ensure that all such information and documentation will be maintained confidentially via separate from personnel files.

Employers will also need to consider employees who choose not to get vaccinated for medical or religious reasons. Mandatory policy should also set forth the process by which employees can request an exemption or other accommodation if the employee declines the vaccination on account of a qualifying medical condition or a sincerely held religious belief. The policy should also assure workers that they will not be subject to retaliation for exercising this right.

A mandatory policy should also communicate the potential consequences for anyone who fails to receive the vaccine and does not obtain an approved exemption by the stated deadline. Consequences might include increased safety measures, unpaid leave or termination.

An employer may also consider issuing a written policy requiring employees to disclose their vaccination status, without requiring vaccination. Such a policy should clearly identify if employees must self-attest to vaccination status or show a copy of proof of immunization.

Considering the uncertainty surrounding COVID and the emerging new strains of the virus, employers should amend their handbooks to address vaccination and other COVID-related safety policies.

Our Team and Curtin & Heefner is happy to work with companies to craft these important handbook policies.

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