Kansas City employers share new strategies to get more workers vaccinated

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One million COVID-19 vaccinations, as Kansas City passes the milestone this week, local employers ponder how to reach the next step.

That next step? Two million vaccinations, striving to reach herd immunity. But sluggish vaccination rates could accelerate as more businesses start requiring shots for their employees.

Truman Medical Center/University Health has mandated that employees must be vaccinated by September 20. Hospital administration said they will not really know the how many people opt-out until they reach the deadline.

But Charlie Shields, TCM/UH President and CEO, said on Tuesday that, yes, they will probably lose some employees because of the requirement. However, those employees might not be able to find work at other hospitals as more healthcare facilities start mandating COVID-19 vaccinations like they do the flu shot.

The healthcare industry is not alone in this push.

The focus of Tuesday’s KC Chamber meeting was “Increasing Vaccination Rates in the Workplace.” One business that shared thoughts on their decision to mandate was United Inner City Services (UICS).

UICS Executive Director Deidre Anderson said it was necessary being in childcare.

“When the child tested positive, also having double ear infection and pneumonia, I guess it was just a courageous leap of faith,” Anderson said reflecting on the decision. “I hate when I get the reaction that ‘You’re forcing me to get vaccinated.’ My reaction is ‘I’m sure it feels like that. And I apologize if it feels like that. But I’m simply telling you this is why we’re doing it. This is what we’re doing. And you do still have a choice.'”

Recently updated OSHA guidelines suggest “that employers consider adopting policies that require workers to get vaccinated or to undergo regular covid-19 testing, in addition to mask wearing and physical distancing, if they remain unvaccinated.”

Legal experts at the chamber meeting were asked if mandatory vaccination for employees is legally permissible.

Their answer was yes, with exemptions for disabilities and sincere religious beliefs.

But employers can also continue to encourage vaccinations through methods including weekly prize drawings, discounted rates on insurance premiums, health insurance surcharges, or requiring the use of normal PTO or unpaid leave for unvaccinated employees who get COVID-19.

“I have people who are frustrated with me because I’m the bearer of the news and also a lot of misunderstanding why we no longer continue to pay emergency sick leave and trying to explain on the front end of the pandemic there was no vaccination so that was the government’s accommodation,” Anderson said. “The volume of exposure is extremely extensive for us. But, I can’t operate at all when people are not vaccinated and they’re exposed.”

In general, moving forward, employees who have a legitimate reason for not getting vaccinated may be given reasonable accommodations including wearing a mask, bi-weekly testing for COVID-19, or remote work.

But, according to the legal experts on the panel, the accommodation does not have to be the employee’s preferred accommodation.

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