COVID-19 one year later: Vaccines, relief, safety, and its impact on employers

HR team whiteboarding together wearing masks and following COVID-19 safety guidance

It's been a year since the first stay-at-home orders began rolling out, and the COVID-19 pandemic is still having a dramatic impact on many organizations – particularly on their HR teams. The good news, though, is that we've continued evolving how we fight the virus, and more tools are now available to help you support your people and create safe work environments. Here’s the latest roundup of COVID-related issues impacting businesses so you can stay in the know and explore the resources available.

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.

Vaccines and your people

With COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widely available, employers need to establish their vaccine strategy and approach now before things hit critical mass. Of course this leads to some big questions – should we encourage employees to get vaccinated? Should we require them to? How should we communicate this to them? Here are a few things for HR teams to consider when managing vaccination policies.

Building a communication strategy

During the COVID-19 pandemic, trust in governments worldwide has dropped significantly while trust in businesses has increased. This means that many of your employees are looking to you for vaccine education – and what you say will be highly impactful.

It's important to start by taking time to develop a strategic communications plan that provides comprehensive vaccine education and delivers relevant and meaningful messages to different teams, areas of the business, and/or demographics. Regardless of the steps you decide to take with vaccines, you need a clear and intuitive way of telling your people about your decisions.

Watching state mandates

Keep an eye on state regulations and how they may impact your organization’s vaccine policy. Some states, like New York, may require employers to provide paid leave for employees who get vaccinated. Others already have policies in place that govern vaccines and if/when an employer may need to provide paid leave or include time spent getting vaccinated as working hours.

The point here is that beyond formulating your own organization-specific plans, you need to be able to quickly handle regulatory requirements. As we've seen multiple times in the past, this crisis has increased the speed with which these changes happen so it pays to be informed.

Evaluating other organizations' vaccine policies

Some organizations have recently made announcements around their vaccine policies. Some are offering paid time off to their employees, like Target and Olive Garden, while others are offering monetary incentives, like Kroger.

It’s important to understand that (at the time of this writing) there has been little guidance from the federal government around company incentives and COVID-19 vaccines. Regardless of the policy that your organization establishes, there are two items that will be critical to consider:

  1. The potential tax implications of offering additional paid leave or monetary incentives – especially around calculating overtime premiums
  2. Accommodations for employees who can't get vaccinated for reasons such as medical or religious restrictions, etc. – especially for organizations who choose to encourage employees to get vaccinated with special incentives.

For example, while Kroger is offering a monetary incentive to employees who get vaccinated, they're also offering that same incentive to employees who can't get vaccinated if they complete an educational health and safety course. Make sure you have the flexibility to include these kinds of options if you go down this path.

Relief and employee safety

On March 11th, the American Relief Plan (ARP) Act was signed into law. This Act includes a number of measures to provide relief to individuals and businesses. Here are a few things that may impact HR teams.

Family and sick leave credits

While employers have had the option of continuing to offer paid family and sick leave credits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) since December 31st, 2020, the ARP Act makes a few changes to the credits, including:

  • Extending FFCRA credits to Sept. 30, 2021
  • Increasing the limit on the credit for paid family leave to $12,000
  • Increasing the number of days a self-employed individual can take into account in calculating their qualified family leave equivalent from 50 to 60
  • Allowing paid leave credits for leave related to a COVID-19 vaccination
  • Resetting the limit on the overall number of days taken into account for paid sick leave after March 31, 2021
  • Expanding credit eligibility to allow 501(c)(1) governmental organizations to take them

The American Rescue Plan also expands the definition of qualifying paid family leave to allow a business to claim family leave payroll tax credits for all qualifying uses of paid sick time, including for leave provided if the employee is subject to a quarantine or isolation order due to COVID-19 or is caring for someone in a comparable situation.

Employee retention credit

Eligible organizations can receive a refundable tax credit on employee wages and the employer portion of health benefits. This was part of the original CARES Act legislation that was passed in April 2020.

Originally this credit was set to expire after June 30th, but the ARP Act now extends the employee retention credit through the end of 2021.

Updated safety guidance

OSHA recently updated its guidance around how vaccines fit into an effective workplace COVID-19 prevention program.

And the organization recommends that employers make vaccines available at no cost to all eligible employees, providing information and training on the benefits and safety of vaccinations, and uniformly applying safety standards and protective measures (for instance, wearing face coverings and social distancing), to both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.

OSHA also received increase funding to investigate employers who do not have or do not enforce COVID safety measures, so it's important for organizations to continue to adhere to COVID safety guidelines.

Conclusion: The bottom line is adapting to fast-paced change is still critical

Even with a full year of COVID-19 experience under our belts, the pace of regulatory change and workplace safety standards evolving won't slow down anytime soon. That's why it's critical to have the right HR technology supporting your HR team and wider organization. Leveraging a flexible solution to support your vaccine strategy is critical to keeping your people safe and informed, while keeping your business moving forward.

If you're exploring how you can support your organization's continued COVID-19 response, including supporting vaccine tracking and employee communications, I invite you to take a tour of UKG Ready’s COVID Response Hub and see the ways HR technology can help smooth out these processes.

Tour the COVID Response Hub