Toward a safe workplace

Mark Fogt, president and CEO of Garrett State Bank, Garrett, Ind., now has proof of his COVID-19 vaccination to keep with proof of his 1959 and 1962 polio vaccinations. Fogt’s son is a third-year resident surgeon who has been “barking at my wife and me to get vaccinated,” Fogt said. He called the vaccination a “non-event.”

At the beginning of February, the state of Indiana lowered the eligibility threshold for COVID-19 vaccinations to age 65. One day later, Mark Fogt, president and CEO of Garrett State Bank popped into a vaccination site in north Fort Wayne to get his first shot. 

Noah Wilcox, chair, president and CEO of Grand Rapids, Minn.-based Wilcox Bancshares, who admits to never having had a flu shot in his life, is chomping at the bit to get his inoculation. “I’ll be first in line,” he promised.

The long awaited and much talked about COVID-19 vaccines — the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — are held out as a panacea: They will protect our health and restore our economy. Soon, bank lobbies will reopen fully-staffed; merriment will return to public squares; people will pack into airplanes; they’ll check into convention hotels and congregate at industry meetings; they’ll shake hands with vigor, maybe grab drinks. And all it will take is two shots in the arm, spaced a few weeks apart. Who wouldn’t be on board with that?

As it turns out, a lot of people.

Michelle Toll, president and CEO of The State Bank Group of Wonder Lake, Ill., polled the 65 employees who work across her eight McHenry County offices, only to discover more than half would not take the vaccine. When a question on vaccine mandates was circulated by the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota to members of its HR Network, one community banker shared that a poll at their bank revealed only 55 percent of their staff said they would take the vaccine when it was available. 

Fogt said he knows all of his employees, knows who plans not to take the vaccine, and why. Wilcox said his team has some work to do to educate employees at his two banks. Sue Black, executive vice president of human resources at the Bank of Elk River, Minn., said she’s been a part of two surveys and is not surprised by numbers that reveal lack of interest. All of these bankers know what they’re up against; they and other leaders across the region are grappling with how to respond to people who are shunning the one thing economists agree is a prerequisite to economic recovery. The actions they decide upon to increase participation will vary, will be creative, and will no doubt become another data point as the industry continues to transform in the coronavirus era. 

Encourage vs. mandate

The early chatter focused on mandates. Because banks are considered essential businesses and they have a workforce that is largely customer facing, bankers are within their rights to require vaccines for at least that part of their workforce. But just because a bank can mandate an employee get a vaccine does not mean it should. 

“From an HR standpoint, you can mandate the vaccine as long as you make exemptions, such as for religious accommodations or an underlying medical condition,” said Bob Greening, vice president of USource HR Consulting Services, part of United Bankers’ Bank, Bloomington, Minn. “But you have to be really careful.”

Incentives to vaccinate, Greening said, might be a better route than mandates for employees.

“I think it would be a bold employer who would step up and make it mandatory,” said Toll, who maintains her PHR certification through the Society of Human Resources Professionals. As she looked at the navigation required around such a mandate, making allowances for religious or medical accommodations, she determined that mandates were “a really complicated space.” Even incentives to vaccinate introduced risk, she said, such as implied pressure to fall in line. If a bank incentivizes someone to get vaccinated, Toll proffered, but then that person has an adverse reaction “the employer liability… .”

Greening pointed out some of the buried mines in this field of consideration: Do you mandate for customer-facing employees but not other employees? Do you make vaccination a prerequisite to returning to the workplace? Should proof of vaccination be required before a travel or outside meeting restriction is lifted? And if you’re vaccinated, does that mean masks can be discarded? Greening’s advice on all these questions: “Your attorney should weigh in.”

And while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance that seems to clear the way for vaccine mandates, at least in Minnesota, ambiguity exists. In mid-January at a Minnesota House committee hearing, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had received “emergency use authorization” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they could not be required.

Widespread acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine will mean bank staffers may no longer have to stay an arm’s length from each other or their customers. Lane Jones (left) and Jackie Tucker, Star Bank, Eden Prairie, Minn., demonstrate social distancing with a smile.

Malcolm’s statement was good enough for Katie Wahlquist, chief administrative officer at Star Bank, Eden Prairie, Minn., who’d been conferring with outside counsel on the pros and cons of a vaccine mandate versus incentives or encouragement. “Star Bank will not be mandating the vaccine,” Wahlquist said.

Toll has been conferring with her team and asking the Illinois Bankers Association to put out some feelers on how to craft incentives, yet her worries linger. If a bank offers incentives, she wonders, “are you leaving protected classes on the sidelines?” 

For bankers wondering how to weave vaccine mandates into company policy, Greening suggests clearly spelling out the consequences for non-compliance. A policy must also address reasonable accommodations. “You have to be very careful.”

Mythbusting through education

Last November, before the first COVID-19 vaccine received FDA approval, a Gallup poll revealed that only 63 percent of Americans would be willing to take one. By mid-January, as first-responders started to roll up their sleeves for first shots, Gallup conducted a follow-up poll; this one revealed our collective willingness to receive the vaccine had hardly budged. (It rose to 65 percent.) Most immunologists believe herd immunity for COVID-19 will be achieved when between 70 to 85 percent of the population is vaccinated. 

Toll said she respects the decisions her employees are making and “refrains from breathing condemnation.” But she also vows to lead by example and provide accurate information to employees. It is the best course of action for a leader, she said.

Dan Soular, M.D., with Grand Itasca Hospital, spoke to employees of Minnesota’s Grand Rapids State Bank and Minnesota Lakes Bank, Delano, about COVID-19. He later responded to questions that had been collected in advance. The session was designed to move people beyond the myths and the politics of the vaccine, said Noah Wilcox, the banks’ chair and CEO.

The Wilcoxes, Noah and wife, Julie, who is executive vice president of marketing, brand and communications, expressed a desire to educate their workforce with the goal of moving the bank closer to pre-pandemic operations. In late January, Noah Wilcox contacted the president of the local hospital to find a physician to speak (via Zoom) to his staff. “We wanted to dispel the myths and the conspiracy theories — to basically pull the politics out of it,” Wilcox said. 

Wilcox Bancshares operates two community bank charters in Minnesota.

The Zoom session was part of an internal marketing program designed to educate staff “so everyone can formulate in their minds what they’ll do with regard to the vaccine when it does become available to them,” Julie Wilcox said.

Attendance at the session was mandatory. The physician spoke plainly about COVID-19 and the vaccines, and then responded to employee questions, which were submitted ahead of time.“They were good questions,” Noah Wilcox said. Examples included: “What should I do if I’m pregnant or planning to become pregnant?” or “What if I’ve gone into anaphylaxis before?” or “Do I need the vaccine if I’ve had COVID-19 already?”


The COVID-19 mRNA vaccines:

  • Cannot give someone COVID-19.
  • Do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19.
  • Do not affect or interact with human DNA in any way.
  • Never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where DNA is kept.
  • A cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Wilcox Bancshares will not mandate vaccines for people but they will “heavily encourage” people to get vaccinated. They hadn’t made a decision on what such encouragement could look like, but it might be time off to get the vaccine and recover from its reportedly mild side effects. 

“I think they want the vaccine, but they want it on their terms,” Julie Wilcox said.

Fogt has formalized “encouragement to vaccinate” at Garrett State Bank, where about six of the bank’s 50 employees have recovered from COVID-19 already, and another 10 have spent time outside the bank in quarantine. Of those 50 people, Fogt said he knows of four who have said they will not take the shots.

During the past year, Garrett State Bank gave people paid time off to quarantine and paid time off to recover from COVID-19 without requiring them to use accumulated sick leave or vacation. Each person who gets the vaccine now will receive up to 8 hours off to recover from each shot, and receive another 40 hours of sick leave after getting both shots. For people who choose not to vaccinate, that benefit will not apply; any sick time or quarantine time will come out of employees’ PTO. “We thought the carrot was better than the stick,” Fogt said. 

Health and wellness

For Fogt and the Wilcoxes, the pull to educate the workforce on vaccines is the creation — or perhaps the recreation — of a safe work environment. It’s an endeavor to bridge the distance the pandemic forced upon the workplace. But some transformations that may have started in chaos have settled into a workable new normal. For some, home is the preferred workplace.

Noah Wilcox, who had been diametrically opposed to work-from-home arrangements, who lost good employees for a stance he dubbed “closed-minded,” says there will be no going back to the ways of old, at least not 100 percent. “I think remote work will persist,” he said. “Some hate it; some thrive.”

Black, who doesn’t want to be in a position to tell employees what to think or do with regard to the vaccine, worries more about employees burning out because their home offices can actually lead them to working too much. The Bank of Elk River is starting to institute a wellness initiative that focuses on the remote workforce, because she believes it’s the future of banking.

“If somebody doesn’t want to take the vaccine, who am I, or who is the bank, to force them?” Black asked. “What employees really need right now is grace and hope. We need to give each other a little bit of that.”

mRNA vaccines are new, but not unknown
Researchers have been studying and working with mRNA vaccines for decades. Interest has grown in these vaccines because they can be developed in a laboratory using readily available materials. This means the process can be standardized and scaled up, making vaccine development faster than traditional methods of making vaccines.

mRNA vaccines have been studied before for influenza, Zika, rabies and cytomegalovirus, a common virus related to chickenpox. As soon as the necessary information about the virus that caused COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) was available, scientists began designing the mRNA instructions for cells to build the unique spike protein into an mRNA vaccine.

The German company BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer, began its work on the COVID-19 vaccine in January 2020. Future mRNA vaccine technology may allow for one vaccine to provide protection for multiple diseases, thus decreasing the number of shots needed for protection against common vaccine-preventable diseases.

Beyond vaccines, cancer researchers have used mRNA to trigger the immune system to target specific cancer cells.