Employers move to COVID-19 front line
New Jersey is catching its breath after six months of the coronavirus pandemic with steady numbers in most of the public-health categories, although the rate of transmission remains touch-and-go. And the number of available jobs in the state has leveled off, although we have recovered only about half of the jobs that were lost during the early days of the pandemic. Only about one in four of employer-respondents from a survey taken by the Employers Association of New Jersey (EANJ) say they have plans for a full recall this year. Most employers are waiting. What are they waiting for? Nearly 25% of employer-respondents say they are waiting for the widespread availability of a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 before a full recall.
At the time of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that researchers worldwide are working around-the-clock to find a vaccine against the coronavirus. Experts estimate that a fast-tracked vaccine development process could speed a successful candidate to market in approximately 12-18 months — if the process goes smoothly from conception to market availability.
Of course, in a world ruled by science and reason, people would be inclined to trust credible medical evidence when it comes time to line up for vaccination. But even before the pandemic, public-health agencies around the world were struggling to counter increasingly sophisticated efforts to turn people against vaccines. With vaccination rates against measles and other infectious diseases falling in some locations, including the United States, the World Health Organization in 2019 listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of 10 major global health threats.
The CDC is now working on a plan to boost “vaccine confidence” as part of the federal effort to develop a vaccine but trust in the government’s initiatives are low. All the misinformation we’ve seen so far — that the U.S military manufactured the virus, that 5G cellphone towers spread it, that drinking bleach or injecting UV rays can cure it, that Dr. Anthony Fauci is part of a political conspiracy, that Bill Gates holds the patents for a cure — may be causing widespread confusion and suspicion. Recent polls have found as few as 50% of people in the United States are committed to getting a vaccine, with another quarter hedging their bets. Some of the communities most at risk from the virus are also the most suspicious: Among African Americans, who account for nearly one-quarter of U.S. COVID-19 deaths, 40% said they wouldn’t get a vaccine in a mid-May poll by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago.
Public trust is low
Public-health experts say they need to start now to counter all this misinformation, because epidemiologists estimate that to break the pandemic, 70% of the population may need to develop immunity, either by getting a vaccine or becoming infected. And with a national election upon us filled with incendiary, conspiracy-based campaigning, the virus has been politicized. But whatever the political affiliation, the Pew Research Center reported in 2019 that Americans’ trust in government is at an historic low. Only 17% of Americans said they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right — “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%). Distrust cuts across political affiliation — only 21% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they can trust government, compared with only 14% of Democrats and Democratic leaners — and racial and ethnic lines.
Some public-health agencies say we should consider taking vaccinations out of medical settings and into places where people work. New Jersey law already requires that each health care facility establish and implement annual flu vaccination programs including mandatory annual vaccinations. And during the Novel H1N1 influenza surge in 2009, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had taken the position that employers could mandate flu vaccines, with some exceptions, although guidance would need updating for COVID-19.
Employers on the front line
During the first six months of the pandemic, it was the frontline worker who was a risk. Now, it is the business owner on the front line, as a new legal front is showing the risks of reopening workplaces without taking proper precautions. Walmart, Safeway, Tyson Foods and some health care facilities have been sued for gross negligence and wrongful death since the coronavirus pandemic began unfolding in March. Employees’ families allege that the companies failed to protect workers from the deadly virus and should compensate their family members as a result. Workers who survived the virus also are suing to have medical bills, future earnings and other damages paid out, which could last a lifetime because of the potential long-term consequences of the virus, including damage to the lungs and other organs.
In responding to the lawsuits, employers have said they took steps to combat the virus, including screening workers for signs of illness, requiring they wear masks, social distancing, sanitizing workspaces and limiting the number of customers inside stores. Some point out that it is impossible to know where or how their workers contracted the virus. But COVID-19 has been a game-changer and employers who rely on misinformation or the political passions of the moment will be penalized as they are required to make their best efforts to obtain public-health advice that is contemporaneous and appropriate for their location, and to make reasonable assessments of conditions in their workplace based on this information.
In the meantime, with or without a vaccine, employers should take every precaution to avoid workers’ compensation liability. Learn how.