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Abigail Vaughan

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Three practical issues with slashing sick pay of unvaccinated employees

Introducing new vaccine-based sick pay policies is not just up for moral debate, it's also a big administrative burden. Is it worth the bother?

A new approach for occupational sickness pay for unvaccinated employees has become a hot topic over the past couple of weeks, with major UK companies making headlines by announcing changes to their policies on sick pay between vaccinated and unvaccinated staff.

There’s no doubt that the challenge of keeping your employees and customers safe has become a much bigger issue for many businesses. Balancing the latest scientific and government guidance against the needs of your business and how to best operate is, and will remain, very difficult. 

Employers’ sick policies are often a source of differentiation and an important part of the employee value proposition. But, prior to Covid-19, there hasn’t been a compelling reason in most businesses to differentiate sick policy by reason for absence. The government’s requirement for different isolation rules by vaccine status has now created that compelling reason. 

In addition to the practical considerations of how to do this, companies are grappling with the ethics of such a move. On the one hand employers are trying to solve the very real issue of workplace absenteeism, but on the other hand they are not wanting to alienate a workforce that may be struggling with higher costs of living when they are also in a strong position to choose their employer. Weighing up the costs and benefits of such a decision is a live discussion in many of today’s Boardrooms.

Here we offer three questions that should be taken into consideration when debating your business’ approach.

1. Do you hold the necessary data?

To successfully implement a varying sick pay policy, you must be confident in your organisation’s ability to accurately collect, maintain and update the necessary data. Most obviously the vaccination status of your workers, but also the reason for their absence.

Many businesses would view a blanket policy where non-vaccinated workers are worse off in case of any illness or medical leave unreasonable. Reduced pay for an unvaccinated person suffering from cancer, for example, would not be appropriate.

This means that employers must decide how rates of sick pay will differ depending on the reason for missed work, whether it be from government-imposed isolation or their own policies. Measuring this accurately will require a lot of manual effort, exponentially greater for larger employers. 

2. Do you have a clear definition for ‘vaccinated’?

Another burning question that defies a simple response is what constitutes ‘vaccinated’ status?

At present, segments of the working population will have had one, two or three doses of a vaccine, if any. Is only a full card of vaccinations appropriate for enhanced sickness pay? Similarly, some unvaccinated workers will have legitimate medical reasons that prevented them from getting any shots. Reviewing that evidence will be another requirement for an effective roll out. 

There is also the question of what further jabs or boosters may be advised or offered to the public in the future. Committing to a policy that distinguishes employees on vaccine status will need to evolve continually. 

3. Do you have the digital and human resources you need?

Sickness policies are generally applied universally because this is the easiest to manage. Introducing a variable or status-based sickness policy is a major logistical and process-based challenge which can only be achieved with effective digital automation. 

Advances in HR software have unlocked powerful tools for organisations to better manage and support the health and wellbeing of their colleagues. To consider changes at the scale required to adopt a new policy based on vaccines requires a high level of confidence in your systems, and your teams’ ability to introduce new changes, fields and reporting. 

To pay, or not to pay?

There is no doubt that the global Covid-19 pandemic has had no modern precedent, and it may still require historic, never-before-tried changes for businesses to ensure we can all move forward safely and effectively. However, it’s also true that the past few years have already put major pressure on HR and payroll departments, coping with absences, government subsidy schemes (furlough), and adapting to hybrid working.

Alongside the ethical considerations, introducing new policies that impact every member of your workforce – especially at a time when government guidance around isolation periods is under review – must be balanced against the realities of implementation.

Interested in this topic? Read ‘Five ways to manage Covid-19 vaccination conflict.’

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