When will Michigan workplaces get back to normal? There’s no one set approach

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Detroit Free Press
March 24, 2021
Adrienne Roberts 

Liz Blondy is eager for the world to go back to normal.

As the owner of Canine to Five, a dog day care, boarding and grooming center with locations in Detroit and Ferndale, her business is dependent on dog owners needing a reason to leave the house, whether it’s for work or travel. She also needs her employees healthy and at work to be able to take care of the dogs.

“My goal is to eliminate uncertainty in this weird in-between place that we’re in now as it relates to employees having COVID-19,” Blondy said, referring to the process of having to notify employees when they’ve potentially been exposed to COVID-19.

She thinks the cure for this uncertainty is the vaccine. But after talking with her employees about the vaccine, she realized some are reluctant to get it, or apathetic.

“I wanted to eliminate that,” said Blondy. “I’m incentivizing it and rewarding it.”

She’s doing that because she believes in herd immunity, when a large percentage of the population is immune to COVID-19. That happens either through developing resistance to the virus naturally by being exposed to COVID-19, or through vaccines, which build resistance by making the body think it has been infected with the virus.

Large companies like the Kroger Co. grocery chain also are offering employees incentives — in Kroger’s case paying them a $100 bonus to get the vaccine — but there is no set way companies are approaching how to get their employees protected.

Months into the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, some Michigan employers aren’t communicating any information about the vaccine at all, while others are offering the vaccine at the workplace.

COVID-19 vaccine a way back to ‘normal’

Yet many company executives and business owners, like Blondy, see the vaccine as a mechanism to keep their employees safe at work, and possibly bring those who have been working from home back to the office.

More than 80% of respondents to a recent Detroit Regional Chamber survey of business executives agreed vaccinations will be important for their company to return to “normal” business operations.

“Everybody obviously wants to get back to normal,” said Elaine Coffman, president of Lockton Michigan, a health insurance brokerage firm that has been advising clients on how to handle the rollout of the vaccine.

But Coffman said clients who have polled their workforce find half, and sometimes more than half, of employees don’t want the vaccine, or aren’t sure about getting it.

“It’s just a more controversial vaccine than the flu vaccine,” Coffman said. “But I think most employers really want to play a role in the communication processes and support people getting the vaccine.”

That’s in line with what the Detroit Regional Chamber survey found. Two-thirds of 163 respondents said their organization will be encouraging vaccination, but not mandating it.

Still, nearly 32% of respondents said their company did not have a comprehensive strategy to encourage employees to get vaccinated.

Few companies have decided to mandate the vaccine, business association heads say. Coffman said she’s not aware of any employer that works with her health insurance brokerage that is mandating the vaccine.

Looking for guidance on incentives

To find out what other companies were doing about the vaccine, Blondy turned to Facebook last week with a post that said, in part, “I’ve offered them $50 to show me their vaccine card showing completion — that is not compelling enough. Now I need to hard sell it. … What reasons can I present to these twenty-somethings that will make them want to get the COVID vaccine??”

The post drew nearly 300 comments, but no business owners chimed in with their plans for the vaccine.

“I love crowdsourcing things on Facebook because maybe someone already figured this out,” Blondy. “It didn’t seem like somebody has figured this out.”

She did get several ideas that ultimately shaped her approach, but she had to consult an employment attorney.

“This is a lot on small business owners, especially small business owners that don’t actually have a human resources department,” Blondy said.

It’s not just small business owners who feel like they don’t have all the answers.

John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, which represents and advocates for nearly 1,700 companies, ranging from small manufacturers to large corporations, said it has been a challenge for manufacturers to figure out who is eligible when, and where to get the vaccine.

“The layers of complexity reveal themselves every day,” he said.

But Walsh has been encouraged recently to hear from board members who have surveyed their employees that there’s greater confidence in the vaccine among employees now than there was in January, and that manufacturers are active in the process of talking about the vaccine.

“Our production folks are already in safe, and we think we’ve been operating very safely,” he said. “But it’s a desire to get your engineering, finance and HR staff back.”

Getting the vaccine ‘when it’s their time’

Andy Wasiniak, an executive with the construction firm Walbridge, based in Detroit, needs his team’s many workers out on construction sites. He sees the vaccine as a way to make that happen safely.

“We have essential projects and essential work throughout the country,” he said. “We knew that we had to be quick and smart about our approach because of the challenge in front of us.”

But he said he didn’t want to get too far out in front of the vaccine process.

“We want people to be able to go get the vaccine when it’s their time,” he said. “I don’t really know if everybody will get the vaccine. But what I do know is that people have the information that they’ve asked for. And it certainly appears as though more and more people are getting interested in signing up.”

General Motors Co.’s corporate medical director, Dr. Jeffery Hess, said he wants to protect employees by sending them accurate information, and also make information about the vaccine easy to understand.

“I’m breaking it down (because) you don’t want to read a scientific paper, you want to know what’s in the scientific paper,” Hess said. He also directs employees to resources to do their own research.

GM has taken it a step further. The company, with nearly 50,000 employees in Michigan, started offering the vaccine at work, a step Walsh said he has started to see other larger manufacturers take as well.

On Wednesday, GM offered the vaccine to employees for the first time at its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, now called Factory ZERO. In this case, it was the city of Detroit that approached GM and organized the on-site vaccines.

‘I’m grateful for it’

Calvin Talley, a global supply chain senior group leader for GM, just moved to Michigan a month ago, transferring from GM’s plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Talley, 45, got his vaccination Wednesday morning at Factory ZERO.

“Without work, I wouldn’t have been able to get it,” he said, after struggling to get an appointment somewhere else because he doesn’t yet have a Michigan driver’s license.

“I’m grateful for it,” Talley said. “They’re doing the right thing.”

Hess said GM is looking at offering the vaccine across its health centers, and has applied to be an approved vaccine provider in certain states.

Blondy rolled out her official plan to her 60 employees Monday, after taking suggestions from her Facebook post and consulting a lawyer.

She’s offering a $50 bonus to employees, a paid day off the day after they get their second dose of the vaccine and a $100 additional bonus per employee if all employees get vaccinated.

If all her employees get the vaccine, it’ll end up being an investment of $15,000.

“I care about the employees and I think it is important for their personal well-being,” Blondy said. “I also think that herd immunity is what’s going to get the economy back and I know that that’s what my business needs.”

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