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What the COVID-19 Vaccine Means for Small Businesses

Editorial Team

7 min read
Masked medical professional holding syringe

Two coronavirus vaccines have been approved by the FDA. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have both begun rollouts of vaccinations for front-line workers and high-risk groups. It’s estimated that vaccination may be available to the broader population by this spring, which leaves us asking, what does the COVID-19 vaccine mean for small businesses?

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What’s the connection?

The connection between the coronavirus vaccine and small business is simple: they can benefit each other. Once the vaccines become available for small business employees, employers will have to worry much less about being short-staffed or having a team member’s positive coronavirus test negatively affect their operating capabilities. 

In turn, small business owners also have the power to drive vaccine adoption and trust. In a recent study, 61% of respondents said they’d take the vaccine recommended by their employer. Supporting vaccine adoption has direct benefits for small business owners. Once we reach the level of adoption necessary for herd immunity—which would require 70-85% of the population to receive the vaccine, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci—the coronavirus vaccines have the power to help us return to some modicum of pre-pandemic normal. Performance venues that have been forced to shutter will raise their curtains once again. Date night will return. Trips to the local coffee shop will be a welcome respite from a year spent stuck at home. Consumer behavior may take some time to fully return to pre-pandemic trends, and it’s likely that some of the changes driven by the pandemic may become permanent. Still, the vaccine will likely lead to a return to consumption patterns that many small businesses are depending on in order to survive.  

Should small businesses require vaccines for employees?

As vaccine supplies become more widely available, business owners across the US are asking themselves if they should require the vaccine for their employees. There are three potential approaches: mandating vaccines, recommending vaccines, and the honor code approach.

All three approaches share one common denominator: each relies on clarity as a critical factor. Many companies that have moved to remote work have resisted putting into concrete terms what “return to work” might look like. This reticence makes perfect sense given how much the pandemic has changed from month to month. As Justin Holland, the CEO and co-founder of HealthJoy recently told Quartz, “There’s going to have to be a decision made in this next quarter, because they’re going to have to define what workplace safety looks like in their office… a lot of employees are going to demand clarity.” Like other safety measures, employees will likely be looking to small business owners to dictate vaccine expectations. 

Requiring employee vaccination: pros and cons

Requiring employees to be vaccinated comes with the most overt rewards and the most overt risks. In an interview with NPR, Johnny Taylor Jr, CEO for the Society of Human Resource Management, said that he expected as many as 70-80% of employers could mandate vaccines for their employees.

Mandating vaccines for employees means that you limit the risk of infection among your staff. In a recent NFIB survey, about one in five small business employers reported they were “very concerned” about their employees contracting COVID-19. Another 30% reported being “moderately concerned.” Given that many small businesses have faced staffing issues throughout the pandemic, vaccination might alleviate the potential strain of employees calling in sick. 

Vaccine mandates also offer a customer communications opportunity. If you mandate vaccines for your employees, this is something that you can share with your customers to encourage them to return. If you own a spa, for example, customers may be more likely to book a facial or massage if they know that their practitioner has been vaccinated. 

On the flip side, employers who pursue vaccine mandates will have to consider potential pushback and legal liability. If an employer mandates vaccination, they may potentially be liable if the employee experiences negative side effects. However, like pretty much everything else COVID-related, it’s complicated. As Quartz reports, “Without a vaccine requirement, an employer should be shielded if vaccination causes adverse side effects for an employee. But the lack of a mandate also might open the company to liability if an employee contracts COVID-19 and sues the employer for creating the conditions for exposure.”

Recommending employee vaccination: pros and cons

Another strategy is to forgo the vaccine requirement and instead rely on recommending the vaccine to your employees. This approach leverages employer trust to motivate vaccine adoption, without making it a strict requirement. It’s particularly appealing if some of your employees are skeptical about the vaccine. Many people of color, for example, have said they’re wary of the vaccine because of the US’s history of racism in vaccine and medical research. 

If you’re part of the 56% of small business owners who plan to get vaccinated, you can share your reasons for getting vaccinated with employees. You can also support vaccination by giving employees time off work to get vaccinated, similar to the way you’d approach time off for voting. The trade-off for this is that your company may not attain complete vaccine adoption, leaving your staff and customers vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. 

Honor code vaccination requirement: pros and cons

The third option is to seek a 100% employee vaccine rate without a mandate. Daniel Schreiber, CEO of Lemonade, announced in a company blog post that he would take this approach. The honor system has the potential to give you the benefits of full adoption without employees pushing back because they feel forced to do something. That said, if there are high levels of vaccine skepticism in your area, an honor code approach may be more difficult to execute. 

How to navigate vaccine requirements with your customers

Deciding how to approach vaccination with your customers is an even thornier issue. In some industries, such as air travel, consumers have been asked to show their test results before being allowed to board a flight. With the advent of vaccines, they may be asked to show their vaccine credentials, too. 

The benefit of seeking customer compliance on vaccination is that it supports the health and safety of all. Let us not forget that there are those who, due to medical reasons, will not be able to be vaccinated. These people depend on herd immunity the most. Of course, the flip side of requiring vaccination or vaccine credentials is that it has the potential to exclude these very people from doing business with you. It also has the potential to lead to some contentious customer interactions

The COVID-19 vaccines are still new, and rollout has been limited to healthcare workers and high-risk groups. As a result, we haven’t seen a lot about how business can or should broach the topic with their customers yet—especially for small businesses.

What the vaccine means for your business in 2021

However you decide to approach the vaccine, in the coming months you should plan to determine your ideal strategy and clearly communicate that strategy to your employees and customers. You may choose to mandate vaccines, pursue an honor-code mandate, or simply recommend vaccination. If you’re not sure where to start, the CDC has a slew of helpful resources to inform your decision. 

In addition, these resources can help you do your own research so you can make the best, most  informed decision for your business. 

The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only. Nothing contained herein should be construed as medical advice. Please refer to www.cdc.gov and www.who.int for further information with respect to the coronavirus and COVID-19, and steps you can take to mitigate the related risks.

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