Lawyers say continual education, understanding key to addressing vaccine mandate conversations

Weighing the many factors of how law firms can approach COVID-19 vaccine mandates was the topic of discussion at a Friday panel during the Indianapolis Bar Association’s first Tech Show event. 

Attorneys Judy Okenfuss of Ice Miller LLP and Benjamin Ellis of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP led a discussion on mandatory vaccination and return to work procedures during the CLE event, offering perspectives from the sides of employers and employees.

In targeting an increasingly common part of the day-to-day practice of law, managing partner Okenfuss shared her personal experiences of leading the firm during the pandemic. Ellis gave insight into the increased calls he’s received from employees hoping to seek relief from employer vaccine mandates.

Ellis, who serves as managing partner of HKM, said he thinks COVID-19 vaccine mandates are important, but that it’s equally important for employers to be engaged in the ongoing study on the subject.

The negative bottom line, he said, is that there will be litigation over the subject matter at some point.

We are in the middle of changing set of circumstances. I don’t have the answers about where things will be in six months or a year,” Ellis said.

At the end of the day, Okenfuss said employers should keep in mind that the science surrounding COVID-19 is constantly changing and unclear, which means increased communications between employers and their employees is critical.

“The important part when you’re managing through this to have a reason for what you’re doing,” she said. “You have to do what you believe is right for the health and safety of your business.”

Balancing the fears and the needs of people is important, but not everyone will agree with ultimate decision, she said.

Everything changes so quickly, and for every policy we made, I had 183 partners ask me ‘why?’  So I have to be prepared to explain my reasoning and if they don’t all agree, that’s okay,” Okenfuss said.

Ellis jokingly noted that this is an uncommon instance where he feels badly for employers.

It’s a tough situation,” he said.

The practitioner said during initial conversations about vaccine mandates, there wasn’t a lot of activity at his door. But as employers began announcing their own mandates, particularly those with hard deadlines like some large hospital corporations, he’s getting several intakes each day for employees seeking religious exemptions.

At a time as contentious as this, Ellis said it’s important to have good employer-employee relationships.

People come to me when they have a broken relationship with their employer. I think it’s a growing sentiment that employees are powerless and asking the to get vaccinated is a big ask,” he said.

Regardless of where someone stands on the issue of vaccinations, both Ellis and Okenfuss agreed that it’s critical to respect the opinions of the people that disagree with you.

“You don’t have to agree,” he said, “but you need to treat them as adults who have valid opinions.”

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