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Local employers navigate vaccine skepticism

The question was bound to come up at some point: What happens when an employer tells its workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine but some don't want to?

Bottom line, an employer can make vaccinations a condition of employment, workplace specialists say. But it's not always that simple — it has to be job-related, for example, and local employers say they intend to proceed cautiously.

Federal authorities say no less than three-quarters of the population will have to be vaccinated before the pandemic can be brought fully under control. Given how divisive the pandemic has already been, how thoughtfully employers approach the matter could prove critical.

Reservations about getting vaccinated have already been expressed by some local frontline hospital staff being offered first shot at the 5,850 doses of the Pfizer vaccine expected to arrive in Kern County Thursday or Friday.

"There's still a lot of hesitancy, not only from our staff but for the general population," said the chief medical officer of Dignity Health's Central California division, Dr. Hemmal Kothary, who oversees Bakersfield Memorial and both Mercy hospitals in Bakersfield.

Whether everyone at Dignity will have to get vaccinated is "something that we have to work through," Kothary told reporters attending an online news conference Tuesday. He emphasized hospitals will continue to wear personal protective equipment and practice safety measures.

The law allows employers to require their employees to get vaccines "if the requirement is job-related and consistent with business necessity," Bakersfield human resources specialist Robin Paggi said by email.

"The higher the chances that nonvaccinated employees would put customers, co-workers or the general public at risk," she wrote, "the better case employers have for mandating that employees receive the vaccination."

Beyond that things get complicated. Businesses employing more than four people have to make "a reasonable accommodation" for employees who can't be vaccinated because of medical or religious reasons, Paggi noted.

But she said employers don't have to accommodate employees who resist getting vaccinated based on their doubts about the vaccine.

Her advice was for businesses to use a carrot, not a stick. That is, skeptical employees may respond to encouragement and even rewards for getting vaccinated, Paggi wrote. She referred employers to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as employment law and HR professionals.

The owner of Imbibe Wine & Spirits, David Dobbs, said he's not going to insist any of his employees get vaccinated.

He trusts his employees to take the necessary precautions, Dobbs said.

"I strongly believe it's a personal decision," he said.

The administrator at Hoffmann Hospice, Beth Hoffmann, had a different take after talking with the facility's administration team.

"We're going to … treat it just like we do the flu shot," she said. "And while we do not insist that our staff get a flu shot, we do incentivize them."

Staff immunizations against the flu are given out free or are reimbursed by the company, she said.

The details haven't been sorted out, she explained, but in the past there was a $25 reimbursement if a staff member shows proof of having gotten a shot. Hoffman will probably do something similar, she said.

Kothary, the regional chief medical officer at Dignity Health, said administration of vaccine shots is expected to begin "full bore next week."

Hospital staff receiving shots will have to be registered and sign consent forms, he said, and they will need to have the next day off work "knowing that they can have potential side effects."

Kern County Public Health announced Tuesday it is working with state and federal agencies and with local health-care organizations to distribute the first shipment of the vaccine to hospitals' most critical staff.

The county said more doses of the vaccine are expected to arrive in Kern "in the coming weeks" and that those shots will continue to go to health-care providers.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf