Can I Require Employees to Get Flu Shots?
There remains a great deal of debate over whether employers can require flu shots, especially in critical care settings. To begin with, on August 10 the WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan announced that the H1N1 influenza event has moved into the post-pandemic period. So now we are talking about the “general” flu bug. The CDC has published excellent info for employers in general at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/flu/. So has the World Health Organization http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/en and I can tell you they don’t see eye to eye. (CDC is more pro-vaccine in general.)
The greatest concern is in the health care environment, including senior care and infant care. For example, here’s a thread by concerned nurses http://allnurses.com/pandemic-flu-forum/mandatory-flu-shots-431776.html In general, employers can order employees to obtain flu shots or reasonable alternatives if they are in the medical or care giving profession such as nursing homes, child care workers, home health care providers, and so forth. There may be exceptions if such procedures are contrary to a person’s religious or ethnic doctrine or would present a unique risk to the person’s health.
Having said that if you Google the question you will see that as a result of the H1N1 concern in 2009, unions and employees have filed numerous lawsuits over it. To both mandate and prevent flu shots. So there are risks on both sides of the equation. (What if you don’t do it and theoretically an employee infects someone who gets sick or dies. What’s your risk of that scenario against the risk of losing a vendor contract or fighting an employment lawsuit for wrongful termination? What if the employee has a negative reaction to the vaccine and gets sick or dies themselves? What if they infect the rest of your employees and you lose many work days.)
So what to do?
- Educate yourself and your employees about the virus by referring them to the CDC site above. We do need to take the disease seriously, even if the H1N1 strain is beyond the pandemic stage.
- Get a full legal opinion if you are concerned about how to manage employees who refuse the vaccine (remember in many situations they can still wear a mask as an alternative). There is no “generic” policy I could suggest.
- Any policy created should refer to the NIOSH site and incorporate the best practices discussed there. It should also have provisions for any possible exceptions (religious, health, etc.)
- Look for the least intrusive alternatives. If they won’t take a shot or wear a mask for any “legit” reason, perhaps workers can be reassigned to accommodate their concerns. Get employees involved in this thought process as it is they being affected by the policies too.
- Work with your vendors and regulators to establish reasonable guidelines and commitments.
- Follow some common sense prevention strategies- wash hands frequently, gargle with salt water or Listerine regularly. “Hands-off-the-face” approach. Resist all temptations to touch any part of face (unless you want to eat, bathe). Don’t come to work sick, etc.
- Create a plan for managing anyone concerned about being infected. Is there a doctor someone can call or see if they are concerned?