As 2021 comes to a close, COVID-19's impact on organizations continues to rapidly evolve. From upcoming vaccine mandates and their effect on return to work plans for the new year to the newest developments around financial relief, there's a lot to keep track of for HR professionals. Here are the latest updates and resources on COVID-related issues to help your organization and your HR team stay in the know.
Please note — the information provided below is not legal or tax advice. Organizations should always consult their legal counsel to understand how various policies and regulations may impact their organization.
What vaccine mandates mean for your organization
It's been almost a year since the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered, and as of November 8th, 2021, 194 million people (58.4 percent of the population) have received the vaccine according to the CDC. This number is expected to rise with the recent approval of vaccines for those 5-11 years old. In an effort to continue the rollout and get more Americans vaccinated, the government has released regulations that may directly impact your company. Here are the things you need to know when formulating your vaccine plan:
1. What do the vaccine mandates require?
If you have over 100 employees, you may be wondering how the vaccine portion of President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan is going to impact your business operationally. On November 4, 2021, the White House announced formal regulations that mandate employees of companies with over 100 people be fully vaccinated or submit weekly COVID-19 testing results and wear masks. Vaccine and testing requirements need to be met by January 4, 2022 while masks for unvaccinated employees will be required as of December 5, 2021.
Rules vary by industry as well. For healthcare workers that work at one of the 76,000 healthcare facilities that accept federal funding from Medicare or Medicaid, vaccination will be the only option. The vaccine-only policy also extends to federal workers and contractors. There are very limited exceptions in these settings for people with disabilities, allergies, or strongly held religious beliefs, which will require an approval process to receive.
In addition to vaccine guidelines, this plan also notes that all workers must get paid time off to go get the vaccine and for any recovery time needed afterward. For those who remain unvaccinated, their employer is not required to pay for or provide the weekly testing or masks. OSHA has also confirmed that the vaccination or testing requirement will not extend to remote workers, provided they don't enter any physical workspaces.
It's important to consider how this mandate may impact your operations and what tools you will use to track every employee's status. Those who do not comply with these mandates face almost $14,000 in fines per violation. Leveraging HR technology to help support your vaccine and testing strategy is a great way to increase your chances of accuracy and compliance.
If your business does not meet the criteria for the vaccine mandate, it’s still important to consider how you're going to approach vaccine requirements. Below are a few things to think about according to SHRM:
- Is your workforce office-based and spending a lot of time interacting with the public as well as each other, or are they mostly remote?
- Is there a high risk of spreading COVID-19 from your workplace to vulnerable communities?
- How many of your employees have already been vaccinated?
- Will you offer incentives for following the requirements — both for those who can get vaccinated and those who may not be able to and have to mask/submit weekly test results? It’s important to remember that not everyone can be vaccinated, so flexibility and accommodation for these populations will be key.
- Are alternatives such as masking and consistent testing standards going to be sufficient for your organization?
With colder months, the holidays, and flu season just around the corner, proactively putting a vaccine plan in place and having ways to track your vaccine progress will be important to consider to ensure accurate tracking, compliance with the law, and a safe environment for your employees.
2. How do you account for COVID-19 boosters?
After you determine the broader vaccine management plan for your organization, it will be important to watch whether the definition of "fully vaccinated" changes with the rollout of COVID-19 booster shots. Currently boosters are only available to those 65 and older, immunocompromised individuals, high-risk individuals, and those who work in settings that put them at high risk for contracting the virus. Although this may not be something that directly impacts the majority of your workforce, it will be important to take this into consideration and clearly determine how your company will define whether employees are fully vaccinated.
3. Are you keeping up with local news and regulations?
With different approaches to COVID-19 being taken in each state, it's important to stay tuned to your state regulations. These rules and regulations from both the federal and state government will help you shape your overall plan. Some states like New York and California, both hit hard by the pandemic in early 2020, have embraced vaccine mandates and view them as a way out of the pandemic. Other states, such as Florida and Texas, are pursuing alternatives to vaccine mandates in the workplace and have filed lawsuits against the federal government in response to the announcement. It will be important to stay up to date on all these different levels of the regulatory landscape to do all you can to make your final vaccine policy compliant.
4. How well are you communicating standards?
Between continued issues with the pandemic and the rise in the number of people leaving their current positions, clear and open communication with your current as well as prospective employees will be very important to avoid any confusion. A study done by Gallup found that more US employees favor or strongly favor vaccine mandates in the workplace. The study also found that 36 percent of employees have reported that their companies already have a vaccine policy.
Make sure to develop a comprehensive, strategic communication plan around your vaccine and testing policy to ensure not only the success of your policy, but also the retention of your employees. An efficient way to communicate with employees is through HR technology, especially if you can deliver your announcements around things like vaccine mandates to the devices your employees use most. This gives you another outlet to provide resources and announcements all in one place.
Upcoming financial support deadlines
As we all know, the US government has introduced many relief programs over the course of the pandemic. Keeping up with these is another complicating factor in staying compliant beyond the concerns around vaccines we've already talked about. Below are a couple recent developments you may need to keep an eye on here if you've applied for some of these programs:
1. Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loan forgiveness
If your company collected money from the Paycheck Protection Program in 2020 or 2021, you may be wondering what the next steps will be to apply for loan forgiveness. The COVID-19 Action Plan includes guidelines that will streamline the loan forgiveness application. This will help businesses with the necessary forms by auto-populating them. This means all you'll have to do is sign and return the document to the Small Business Administration.
2. Are you ready to make your first CARES Act tax deferral payments?
In 2020 the IRS allowed businesses to defer payment for the employer portion of the Social Security tax, originally due between March 27, 2020 and December 31, 2020 under the CARES Act. As the end of the year is quickly approaching, it’s important to make sure your organization has already deposited or is preparing to deposit at least half the amount deferred no later than December 31, 2021. Earlier this year the IRS announced that any late payments of the first or second deposits would result in penalties against the entire deferral.
This means that if you deferred $100,000, then the first deposit of $50,000 is due no later than December 31, 2021, and the second deposit of $50,000 is due no later than December 31, 2022. If either are late or partially paid, the company is liable for a late deposit penalty on the entire $100,000.
Additionally, the penalty amount increases based on how late the deposit is. If payment fails to be made within 15 days, the company is liable for a 10 percent penalty. If the payment is not made within 10 days of the first IRS notice of missing a payment, the penalty rises to 15 percent. The IRS also noted that late payment of the first deposit does not accelerate payment of the second in addition to the penalty.
The point of both of these updates is that HR and payroll need to be aligned when it comes to regulatory compliance. Ensure that you're all on the same page with what's due when and have the right systems in place to support you in moving toward those goals. This helps avoid risk while establishing deeper collaboration between the teams.
Conclusion: Plan, communicate, and automate
Rules and regulations regarding the workplace and COVID-19 are constantly changing, but staying on top of the latest news, proactively working with your team to formulate vaccine and communication policies, and investing in a HR technology that pulls everything into one place and helps you get agile around how you manage compliance will lead toward success in keeping your people safe and your business moving forward.
If you're exploring how you can support your organization's continued COVID-19 response, including vaccine tracking and employee communications, I invite you to watch our recent webinar on the topic and see the ways HR technology can help implement your plan and bring people back to the office safely.