Vaccine Mandates: 3 Lessons From the Flu to Help Guide the Way

Federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates have gym owners facing steep fines for non-compliance—and the potential loss of unvaccinated employees. Dennis Mathias shares strategies from 10 years of managing flu vaccine mandates.

For businesses employing 100 or more people, the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate is on the way—and one certainty in an unfamiliar landscape is that its implementation will complicate the lives of gym owners, managers, and employees.

But, as I learned in 10 years of managing gyms within a health system that mandated flu vaccines, there are steps you can take to ease implementation, and now is the time to get started.

Tips on Implementing Vaccine Mandates in Your Club

The consequences for getting this wrong are serious. Gym owners face fines of $14,000 per non-compliance incident. You cannot afford to have employees skirt the mandate, but you don't want to lose disgruntled staff. If you have not considered writing an employment rule for vaccines you will need to do so based on the position you want to take for employees that refuse to follow the mandated guidelines. Be aware their refusal is putting you at risk for a non-compliance fine.

Fortunately, as I found by trial and error, following a few basic strategies can make all the difference in smoothing the way. These strategies include:

  1. Making a plan

  2. Communicating the plan

  3. Using a system to manage the mandate

1. Mandate or testing? Make a plan.

Gym owners will need to decide soon whether they will allow weekly COVID-19 testing as an alternative to vaccination. A testing option might mitigate blowback, but keep in mind that weekly testing and tracking adds another potential layer of costs and complexity to managing the situation.

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According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) FAQ page, over-the-counter tests from a local pharmacy can be used to satisfy the testing requirements. If the rules are followed, gyms can potentially purchase the tests and have them on-site to make the process less burdensome for employees. That could go a long way toward reducing employees' complaints. (The rule as it stands does not require employers to pay for tests, but states that some unions might require it.)

Your plan should account for the rule requiring that covered employers give workers paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from side effects. Pointing this out in your communications can help remind employees you are doing all you can to support them.

2. Communicate your plan quickly, clearly, and directly.

In my early experience managing flu vaccine mandates, my lack of a plan and delays in communication cost me. Frustrated and frightened employees began to quit, and it was too late for me to correct the course. Once I learned that it was essential to address the situation in advance, to stay consistent, and to allow time for employees to adjust, the process went better for everyone.

Based on my encounters, some employees are sure to ask, "What happens if I don't cooperate?" The answer is clear, and it's not your call: You face a $14,000 fine per non-compliance incident. Your business cannot afford for even a single employee to buck the rules.

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Bring employees around to your perspective, it's okay to make the guidelines the bad guy and emphasize that you are in this together—while you also make clear that fighting the mandate is a no-win situation. Stick to your plan and communicate it clearly from the outset, emphasizing ways you are working to make it manageable for everyone.

3. Know that you can’t manage vaccine mandates manually.

Year after year, I spent far too much time as a manager chasing down and collecting flu shot certificates. My advice is to use reliable software to manage your process and to choose software developed specifically for this mandate, not something rigged for it. And it should be a product that is web-based, not something that relies on your employees having to load an app. An app could result in significant headaches, including potential employee mistrust in loading an app meant to collect personal data.

This not only saves time and frustration, but you'll need clear proof of compliance when OSHA drops by for a visit, and they will not accept a spreadsheet checked off yes or no. You will need software that tracks the dates of the vaccine doses because the timing for reaching "fully vaccinated" status varies with different vaccine manufacturers.

The best option is software with a photo capture feature that will allow your employees to download photos of either their vaccine card or weekly test results, depending on which route you choose to go down. These downloads need to be automatically sent to the admin dashboard for your records. If OSHA stops by your facility, they are going to want to see one of those two options for every employee to determine your compliance. Any employee without one or the other in their records is a non-compliance incident and can result in a fine.

The prospect of managing this complex undertaking will no doubt be stressful for everyone, but I found with the flu vaccine mandate that being transparent, clear, and consistent with my employees—and getting ahead of their frustration—made the experience far more manageable.

As with other pandemic-related practices introduced over the past 20 months, we may even eventually find that it just feels like part of the job. We’ll also want to expect the unexpected and be ready for any additional changes to mandates.

Related Articles & Publications

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  • Vaccine Policy Considerations for Health Club Staff

  • Physical Activity Linked to Better Immune Health

Dennis Mathias

Dennis is the President and Founder of RTS and Former General Manager of Healthplex Sports Club.