COVID-19 pandemic had upended normalcy worldwide. While death and devastation ensued, it also changed the mode of work. With work from home being the buzzword for the entire 2020 and then some, the situation has been pretty grim till vaccines arrived. Now every other organisation is setting up camps to get their employees vaccinated. But vaccine hesitancy became a thing with many citizens where they refused to get jabbed for various reasons.
In the first week of August, Guardian reported that Jeff Zucker, Chairman, WarnerMedia News, and Sports & President, CNN Worldwide sent a memo to his employees on August 5 reminding everyone that vaccination is mandatory for working from the office or on the field where they will come in contact with other individuals. Zucker insisted, ‘Let me be clear – we have a zero-tolerance policy on this.’
Now that offices are gearing up to admit 100% employees, new challenges might show up. What if organisations make it compulsory for the employees to get their doses before reporting to work physically? And what if noncompliance leads to termination?
The case in point is CNN, which very recently, sacked three of its employees for turning up at work unvaccinated. In the first week of August, Guardian reported that Jeff Zucker, Chairman, WarnerMedia News, and Sports & President, CNN Worldwide sent a memo to his employees on August 5 reminding everyone that vaccination is mandatory for working from the office or on the field where they will come in contact with other individuals. Zucker insisted, ‘Let me be clear – we have a zero-tolerance policy on this.’
Mandate? Yes and No!
Right now vaccination is not a mandatory requirement anywhere in India but can it be made a reason for termination? Lalit Kar, SVP-HR, Reliance Digital asserts that vaccination for COVID is not mandatory by any legislation or ordinance. Therefore, whether an enterprise can enforce vaccination as a precondition to attending office has become debatable. “However, I am of the opinion that when a company ensures vaccination for its employees, it can make it a mandatory condition for attending the office or workplace. My contention stems from the logic that it is the duty and responsibility of any employer to provide a safe workplace. No employer will jeopardize the safety of the remaining lot for a few obstinate employees,” explains Kar.
But he advises that the best option for any employer is to insist on an RT-PCR report from such employees to be furnished at an interval of every 2 or 3 days. Such employees should be allowed to enter the workplace only after producing a negative RT- PCR report.
Whether organisations should make it compulsory for their employees to have the COVID-19 vaccine is far from straightforward. There is vaccine hesitancy among many employees, many legal factors to consider, and having a one size fits all vaccination policy can result in workers being treated less favourably if they have not been vaccinated.
The Faith Factor
There are reasons why vaccine hesitancy has become a problem in India. There have been several cases where people who have gotten both doses contracted the infection. The faith in the jabs is thus compromised due to these occurrences.
Ravi Mishra, senior VP-HR, global epoxy business, Aditya Birla Group reveals that organisations can motivate people to get vaccinated. He personally came across senior leaders of the industry who were hesitant to get the jab. “Many organisations in India and abroad are restarting their offices and are asking their employees who have received both the jabs to report to work. That’s why I have always believed that this new normal is only temporary. In India, organisations will always be more inclined towards working from the office. The prime reason being the trust deficit among the employees and management,” Mishra asserts.
I have always believed that this new normal is only temporary. In India, organisations will always be more inclined towards working from the office. The prime reason being the trust deficit among the employees and management.” – Ravi Mishra
Many organisations in Maharashtra will start their offices with 100% occupancy. Aditya Birla too has requested the employees who have got both the doses of vaccine to report to work from September 1 while others are counselled to go for it.
The India Story
Times of India shared a report by AON, a professional services firm, released in June this year that claims only 33% of companies will make vaccination a prerequisite for resuming offices. 60% of others will make a decision after consulting the employees while many others will look into the Government’s statistics on COVID-19 cases. It’s safe to say that in the Indian context, it will never turn into a compulsion.
However, Anurag Verma, VP-HR, Uniphore, believes if an employee doesn’t get vaccinated even after an organisation’s drive to help them with the inoculation, there could be some measures introduced.
“That will obviously depend on the nature of the role and the company’s policies. However, termination is an extreme measure to take unless maybe it’s the hospitality industry where one is exposed to the threat and is serving others like the paramedical staff. It could be a possibility there. Those are the industries where you can’t take chances. Customers might not feel safe and vice versa,” Verma reasons.
The discussion now veers towards a conjecture on whether or not, organisations will use vaccination as a preference during hiring processes in the future. Mishra believes it’s highly unlikely because India has seen plagues before and nothing has changed in the strategy.
But Verma is of the opinion that it could be a possibility. “If there are two favourites for a job, one might prefer the individual who got vaccinated over the one who hasn’t. But then again, they can’t force it. Even here, demands of the industry will come into account,” Verma points out.
It is important to understand the legal bindings of an employee in terms of the contract signed by them with the organisation. Some contracts initially have a clause that says that at any point in time, the organisation can amend an internal policy. But there are some conditions that they need to adhere to for it to be acceptable by law.
“If there are two favourites for a job, one might prefer the individual who got vaccinated over the one who hasn’t. But then again, they can’t force it. Even here, demands of the industry will come into account” – Anurag Verma
Adv. H.B. Keshava, whose firm specialises in multiple areas of law such as Intellectual Property Rights, Technology Laws, Labor Laws, etc., and has diverse clients like Kennovation, Servo Controls, Power Centre Kreeda, Logiqleap, and others, shares that technically a company can frame policies under labour laws where the safety of the mass is a concern.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. But it shouldn’t be one-sided. The thing is people are bound by the contract they sign initially with the employers which mention that at any point in time, the organisation can mend the agreement and contract. An organisation has the power to create internal regulatory norms which are acceptable in nature. If they are creating a policy for the welfare of the larger audience which is not derogatory or against basic human norms, it will be held valid. So if somebody has not taken the doses due to non-genuine reasons, there is nothing wrong in terminating their services,” Keshava reveals.
However, if there is a health concern or a person is a COVID survivor and needs to wait out a few months to get vaccinated after recovery, the organisation has to take cognizance of the situation and support them. “Exceptions have to be strictly defined. They also have to notify the employees about the changes in policies and private organisations do have systems in place for that. The policy can only be challenged if the conditions aren’t properly defined. The organisation can be penalised for not doing so,” explains Keshava.
He also predicts a time when such lawsuits will be highly possible in India and there could be several reasons for that. “For instance, a team leader is not fond of a certain junior in the team. The junior may have a genuine reason for not getting the jab but the TL would get him/her terminated on the same ground. Now the junior will challenge the organisation. Also, people may forge vaccination certificates,” Keshava points out.
In India, the Government has decided to keep vaccination voluntary and organisations are doing their bit to encourage their employees to get the jab. But if push comes to shove, there could be measures taken by them to make people accountable for their actions in the era of a rampant pandemic. Naturally, there will be consequences!