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Hawaii businesses in ‘wait-and-see’ mode on vaccine mandates

Google is doing it. So is Facebook, along with a growing number of companies.

The tech giants are mandating their employees get COVID-19 vaccines, both companies announced Wednesday, in order to work at their U.S. campuses in person as the delta variant continues to spread across the nation, driving case counts and hospitalization rates up.

Will Hawaii companies follow suit?

Most private companies are still in wait-and-see mode, according to Michele Kauinui, director of human resources services for Altres, which serves several thousand employers in Hawaii, many of which are small businesses.

While a few have recently implemented mandates, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how to go about it, as well as potential liabilities, and many are watching what larger companies do first as they begin bringing workers back to offices.

“They are being very cautious with the current uncertainties,” she said.

One of the key factors that employers are waiting for, she said, is the full approval of the COVID-19 vaccines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces workplace discrimination laws, has said employers can require vaccination against the virus. In late May, the agency updated its guidance, saying once again that federal laws do not prevent employers from requiring the vaccine, though exceptions should be made to accommodate religious beliefs or medical conditions.

The agency also said employers can offer incentives for workers to get the vaccine so long as they are not “coercive.”

The EEOC, however, also said it was “beyond its jurisdiction to discuss the legal implications of the emergency use authorization or the FDA approach.”

Whether to impose mandates or offer incentives, when, and how, are still being weighed as the number of cases in Hawaii continues to rise due to the highly transmissible delta variant and as vaccination rates continue to wane.

On Wednesday, the Hawaii Department of Health reported three additional virus-related deaths, along with 85 new confirmed and probable coronavirus ­infections statewide, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 41,069 cases and 532 deaths.

The number of daily new cases was a partial count due to electronic lab reporting system interruptions, health officials said, with those missed to be included in the count today.

Average positivity rates for Hawaii County, however, continued to climb, from 7.1% on Tuesday to 7.4% on Wednesday, and for Honolulu County, from 5.0% on Tuesday to 5.2% on Wednesday.

Vaccinations in Hawaii, meanwhile, have plateaued at about 2,000 per day, with about 59.9% of the state’s population having completed vaccinations by Wednesday, according to DOH.

In weighing decisions about mandates, Kauinui said employers also will need to consider how to accommodate medical and religious exemptions, which remains “a tricky area to be navigated on a case-by-case scenario.”

Some employers could offer options like a weekly test or modified shifts instead, according to an Associated Press report noting that the law seems to be on the side of employers based on recent federal guidance.

But the COVID-19 vaccine has become such a divisive and politicized issue that a mandate might drive a wedge between employees or lower morale.

Kauinui said company managers also should be aware of laws protecting employees’ confidential medical information.

An employer may ask an employee if they are vaccinated, but cannot ask why not if they say no, or what kind of medical condition they might have. Also, a manager should not be sharing who is or is not vaccinated during a company meeting.

“People who are vaccinated are very open and comfortable sharing it, but people who are not are not comfortable sharing that information,” she said. “It’s considered confidential medical information.”

Some companies have surveyed their employees to see if incentives would encourage them to get vaccinated.

And several are offering incentives, in the form of paid time off to get the COVID-19 shots, gift cards, raffle-type prizes, even cash bonuses.

Target offers up to two hours of paid time off per COVID-19 shot, in addition to a free Lyft ride for U.S. employees to get to vaccination appointments. Walmart, in addition to paid time off, offers a $75 bonus to its U.S. employees as a “thank you” for getting vaccinated.

Businesses with fewer than 500 employees that offer paid time off for those getting vaccinated are eligible for federal tax credits.

At Zippy’s, employees as early as June were encouraged to get a COVID-19 vaccine through an internal sweepstakes, according to spokesman Kevin Yim. Anyone that completed vaccination and was willing to share that information was entered into a drawing for either a half or full day off.

“We believe that as vaccinations become more common, but mask mandates and other restrictions ease, those who haven’t gotten their vaccinations are at increased risk,” said Yim in an email. “We want to incent those that are on-the-fence to get their shots.”

Kauinui said these incentive policies also should take medical or religious exemptions into account, and offer all employees equal opportunity to participate.

“Providing a safe workplace, while also considering employee morale issues and potential claims of liability, is a delicate balancing act that many are finding themselves in,” Kauinui said. “In the meantime, the demand for vaccination seems to be leveling off, but businesses can help to educate employees by providing reliable and accurate information, along with access to getting the vaccine for those that are interested.”

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