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How HR Can Plan for the COVID-19 Vaccine

FAQ’s around how to navigate the COVID-19 vaccine in the workplace

by Elle Mason

You’d struggle to find an industry or office untouched by COVID-19 or the chatter around the COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, GoCo’s State of the HR Profession Report suggests that 60% of the survey respondents are experiencing negative effects – or outright devastation – related to the pandemic. 

In a matter of months, COVID-19 has challenged the ways that we interact with one another and the ways that we do business, and HR professionals especially have had to develop or adapt to new methods from operations to employee engagement alike.

And with HR professionals having to juggle addressing employee concerns while responding to changing guidelines, it’s no wonder that as our State of the HR Profession Report notes, 41% of HR professionals’ primary concern during this time is understanding and staying in compliance with new policies and procedures. With the news of a COVID-19 vaccine becoming approved for emergency use, it has been the topic of much discussion in recent days as employers have a number of questions around it’s roll-out.

But while many employers may be eager for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine as a method for getting back to post-pandemic operations, data from the Pew Research Center has suggested an increase of skepticism around the vaccine that may complicate that strategy. For example:

In April and May, 72% of poll respondents said that they would get the vaccine when it becomes available, while only about 51% reported similar levels of interest in September.

39% of poll respondents in November said that they would not get vaccinated. 

Although there are vaccine considerations for all departments, for HR in particular, navigating the COVID-19 vaccine considerations will require strategy – from developing an approach, to managing accommodations, to cost and communication. We’ve compiled some of the most pressing COVID-19 vaccine FAQs for HR into a guide to help you along the way. 

Table of Contents

Why should people get the COVID-19 vaccine?

What is the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine?

What are the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

What is the anticipated timeline for the vaccine distribution?

How can HR manage the vaccine priority?

Should the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory or voluntary?

How should HR manage exceptions or accommodations around the COVID-19 vaccine

How should HR communicate COVID-19 vaccine guidance to employees?

How should HR manage medical files and record keeping around the COVID-19 vaccine?

Are on-site clinics a possibility for the COVID-19 vaccine?

How can HR and leadership minimize political distractions around the COVID-19 vaccine?

Who will cover the cost of the COVID-19 vaccine?

Can health plans cover vaccinations for employees who have waived insurance?

What does the vaccine mean for existing CDC protocols such as masks and social distancing

How can I keep track of and manage proof of vaccination documents?

Why should people get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccines may not prevent the virus, but they support the body in its ability to fight the virus – ultimately preventing illness or reducing the chance of serious or life-threatening complications. Beyond just protecting the person receiving the vaccination – the COVID-19 vaccine also helps protect people that they might come into contact with, including colleagues, friends, families and strangers. The vaccine is one major strategy for slowing the spread of COVID-19. 

What is the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine?

Several of the vaccines being tested are meeting requirements and receiving FDA approval – and they are over 90% effective in preventing and protecting people from developing serious illness from COVID-19. Some vaccines are given in a single dose, while others are given in two doses three or four weeks apart. Researchers do not yet know how long the vaccine protects people from COVID-19, or if additional booster doses will be needed.

What are the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

So far, side effects have been mild and last for three days or less. Some of the side effects have included:

  • Pain, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Chills
  • Joint pain

What is the anticipated timeline for the vaccine distribution?

FDA granted emergency use approvals to the Pfizer vaccine on December 11th so high-priority vaccinations have already begun. 

Spring 2021 is likely the earliest that vaccinations will become widely available. States will determine priority distribution although the CDC has recommended the following:

  • Frontline healthcare providers and personnel
  • Emergency medical workers and first responders
  • Adults in long-term care facilities
  • Adults with conditions that put them at risk for serious infection or complications

How can HR manage the vaccine priority?

Employers should avoid prioritizing the vaccine based on job titles or seniority. They should also avoid reaching out to employees directly based on knowledge of pre-existing conditions – which can come off as overbearing and intrusive. If needed, vaccine priority distribution should be prioritized based on risk and role. Currently, the recommendations from the CDC are that vaccinations are prioritized in the following manner:

  • Frontline healthcare providers and personnel
  • Emergency medical workers and first responders
  • Adults in long-term care facilities
  • Adults with conditions that put them at risk for serious infection or complications

Should the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory or voluntary? 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have yet to distribute specific guidance. However, the EEOC updated its Pandemic Preparedness for the Workplace guidance, and recommended the following: 

“Generally, ADA-covered employers should consider simply encouraging employees to get the [influenza] vaccine rather than requiring them to take it.” 

Similarly, OSHA’s previous guidance allows employers to require vaccinations, but protects the employee’s right to refuse on the grounds of belief that a medical condition will put them in serious danger if they receive the vaccination.

In the meantime, broadly, an employer can require that employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine, allowing for exemptions related to disabilities, religious beliefs or medical conditions – although this is not necessarily advised, especially early on in the vaccine development and distribution. Employers can consider the following approaches for future planning:

1.) Offering the vaccine to employees on a voluntary basis, free of charge.

2.) Mandate the vaccine for certain employees – e.g. frontline workers, customer-facing employees, employees who cannot work remotely.

3.) Mandate the vaccine for all employees unless they qualify for an exemption.

GoCo can help you communicate your final approach and decision and keep track of which employees have received and acknowledged it.

How should HR manage exceptions or accommodations around the COVID-19 vaccine? 

If employers implement a mandatory vaccine policy, they will need to manage exceptions and reasonable accommodations for employees who are exempt or object on the following grounds:

1.) Disability under the ADA

2.) Religious beliefs

3.) Reasonable belief that the vaccine will cause serious illness or death due to a medical condition 

Reasonable accommodations can include offering remote work, minimizing interactions with others, or reassignments – to name just a few approaches. 

Job descriptions should also be updated across the board to reflect essential functions that may introduce risk – such as travel requirements or close interactions with other people.

However, employers should still be prepared for the possibility of employees choosing to opt out of the vaccination for personal reasons that are not protected by the above scenarios. While HR teams should aim to develop a dialogue and determine whether or not their objections can be accommodated, this could result in termination of their employment and it’s recommended that HR and Legal teams develop a plan for this scenario, pending further guidance from the EEOC and OSHA.

HR should establish criteria for making exceptions while planning for safety. For example, some coworkers may not be eager to work with their peers who aren’t vaccinated, and in those cases, maintaining social distancing or continuing the use of masks may be reasonable. Fortunately, GoCo makes this entire process easier to manage by allowing you to streamline employee requests.

For more information about keeping the physical workplace safe, see our  COVID-19 & HR FAQs.

How should HR communicate COVID-19 vaccine guidance to employees? 

There are a number of best practices for developing a vaccination program. After determining if the vaccine is mandatory or encouraged, employers can take the following steps.

1.) Determine the accommodations that could potentially be available to employees with exemptions and objections.

2.) Create a formal exemption request form and process to be reviewed and evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

3.) Determine a process for treating employees fairly and handling potential retaliation against exempt employees.

Ultimately, regardless of the selected approach, when it comes to vaccine communication, responding quickly, consistently and being attentive to employee concerns is always crucial – but even more so in a pandemic. Modern HR software like GoCo makes it easy to develop new policy documents, distribute them, and keep tracks of who has acknowledged them and who hasn’t. 

For examples of processes and policies that you can adopt, see our article HR’s Complete Guide to COVID-19

How should HR manage medical files and record keeping around the COVID-19 vaccine?

Employers should be careful to store vaccine-related information in a private manner similar to other medical records. This type of data shouldn’t be accessible or stored alongside personnel notes or evaluation materials – which could also run the risk of bias or discrimination.

But beyond simply storing medical information in alternate place, HR professionals must ensure that all of their data isn’t susceptible to cybersecurity risks. When it comes to HR Data protection, here are some questions to ask:

  • Does my HR software run on modern technology?
  • Does my platform secure data with two-factor authentication?
  • Is my system SOC 2 certified?
  • Does my HR technology utilize certified data centers?
  • Does my HR system protect PHI in accordance with HIPAA?
  • Does my software verify data ownership?
  • Is my company information logged?
  • Is access limited for nonpublic personal information?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, GoCo can help – security is a designated software feature to ensure that private information like medical data and vaccine paperwork is secure.

Strong HR data protection through GoCo includes two-factor authentication for secure data, SOC 2 certifications, certified data centers and running on modern infrastructure for cloud-based applications.

For more information, read our HR Data Protection During COVID-19 Guide.

Are on-site clinics a possibility for the COVID-19 vaccine?

By late 2021, employers may be able to set-up on-site COVID-19 vaccination clinics. The supply of the vaccine is likely to be adequate by then, and political debates and skepticism may have also declined after months of the vaccine being circulated. However, most of the current vaccines require a second injection three to four weeks after the initial injection, so if employers go the route of using on-site clinics, they must carefully track the timing of the first dosage. 

GoCo’s software can support this by automating record-keeping.

How can HR and leadership minimize political distractions around the COVID-19 vaccine?

HR and leadership teams can make it clear that the vaccines are encouraged by the federal government and not necessarily based on any position of the employers. While much of the skepticism is based on political views, beliefs and attitudes, by taking a scientific approach and focusing on the effectiveness, positive impact, and return to work, employers can potentially avoid heated debates and other political distractions.

Who will cover the cost of the COVID-19 vaccine? 

The United State governments has agreed in advance to purchase all COVID-19 vaccines, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act mandated that employer-sponsored health insurance provide coverage without member cost-share for a vaccine 15 days after it was recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). 

Because of the federal government’s agreement, employer-sponsored plans are likely to only be responsible for administration fees and follow-up booster shots, if needed.

Can health plans cover vaccinations for employees who have waived insurance?

An employer-sponsored health plan can only provide COVID19-vaccination to members of the health plan, but employers can determine alternative means, or await government-issued guidance, to ensure that they don’t create a non-compliant health plan.

What does the vaccine mean for existing CDC protocols such as masks and social distancing?

An effective vaccine makes a person resistant to illness and subsequent infection – or reduces the severity of the illness and the chance of complications, but it’s not a 100% shield from ever getting infected. Given that, and the fact that more information is needed about how long the vaccine provides immunity for and how much protection it provides, we should still maintain the following CDC protocols and follow any new guidance released.

  • Avoid close contact and remain 6 feet away from other people when possible.
  • Wear masks and face coverings to cover your nose and mouth.
  • Practice good hygiene and wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 70% alcohol.

How can I keep track of and manage proof of vaccination documents?


When it comes to tracking vaccination documents and certifications, having a modern HR software like GoCo can be a game changer. With our advanced Magic Docs technology, you can transform any document into a reportable form — which, in this case, would be a COVID-19 proof of vaccination document. Here’s how!

1. Select the type of Document you’d like to collect/report on. Since the COVID-19 vaccination is a custom document, you can easily select “Document to Collect” as the type.

2. Name the document, and add custom settings. With GoCo’s document management system, HR managers can easily give documents custom names, add instructions, upload examples of document types, and create a document workflow for easy collection. In our example here, the workflow begins with a document request, allows employees to upload the file, and then notifies HR admin of the update and saves it to the employee profile. You can also select custom permissions depending on who you want to access it. 

3. Employees upload requested documents! 



Ultimately, managing COVID-19 vaccination communication and protocols is a massive undertaking that is absolutely critical for the health and safety of your employees and overall workplace. 

GoCo can help by improving your security and streamlining or automating a number of processes. The Human Resource Information System (HRIS) makes everything electronic and reduces double data entry while Magic Docs makes electronic record-keeping a breeze and allows you to easily update existing policies and handbooks with fresh information, as well as create and send new COVID-19 vaccine documents company-wide in the system. And the HR support center helps you stay up to date with legislation and related compliance information, as well as providing advisors that can give guidance – guidance that will be sorely needed as we continue to work through this pandemic. 

See how GoCo can simplify your HR