Americans continue to face unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each phase of the pandemic has exposed racial disparities that exist within our public and private institutions. In particular, it is clear that health equity lags for racial minorities throughout the U.S. -- and that this inequity directly impacts employees of color across the socioeconomic spectrum. Solving the multi-layered issues related to COVID-19 requires a strategic and evidence-based approach. As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, employers can play a significant role in addressing disparities within their workplaces and communities.
The Disproportionate Reality
National and local data provide stark evidence that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In Chicago, for instance, where Black people represent 30% of the population, they are the face of 57% of COVID-19 deaths—nearly four times more than any other racial demographic. And the data is no less stark nationally. In April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released national data suggesting Black people accounted for 34% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases, even though Black people only account for 13% of the overall U.S. population. There were similar nationwide findings for the Latinx community, constituting approximately 25% of COVID-19 related hospitalizations and 80% of the intensive care unit admissions in the same month at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
The Implications & Opportunity
Employers must take the time to understand the barriers to an effective vaccine rollout and return-to-work strategy. Without intentional and stratified efforts to ensure health equity in the distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccines, employees of color and their families will continue to experience disproportionate attrition; anxiety; and physical, mental, and financial stress. Employers can make a significant impact through low cost, organizational process improvements designed to expand employees’ vaccine access and improve benefits coverage communications. Here are steps employers can take today:
Work collaboratively with your healthcare vendors, as well as local health officials and other health organizations, to plan and execute an organized and accessible vaccine rollout. Collaborate in a manner that prioritizes those who are most at risk (e.g., on-site “essential workers”).
Do not make assumptions about vaccine uptake timing. Recognize that there are barriers rooted in history and current events that will impact employee willingness to receive the vaccine. According to February 2021 CDC data, out of nearly 38 million people who received 1 or more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, only 6.1% were Black and 8.9% were Hispanic compared to 63.2% White. These statistics are due not only to inequitable access to the vaccine, but also historical mistrust of the medical system felt by many Black Americans, in particular. (For more context, on February 16, 2021, NPR published a related article about how the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1930s continues to affect the Black community today.) Your employees will be ready to receive the vaccine when they have the access and information they need.
Communicate effectively and in a manner that speaks to the data on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine while also reducing perceived barriers. For example, if employees are already unaware of the scope of preventive care, they will not be immediately aware of the ability to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and testing at no additional cost.
Increase workplace flexibility for your employees. Availability and access are critical. Employees will be more likely to get the vaccine if they have sufficient paid time off and can be vaccinated on-site or near-site. Also, rethink work structures and policies to enable remote and/or flexible work opportunities. Especially for those who are also caretakers, single parents, immuno-compromised, or facing other circumstances made more complex by the pandemic, additional flexibility can significantly increase the likelihood of getting the vaccine.
COVID-19 has exposed longstanding systemic inequities that undermine the physical and economic safety of minority populations. Taking strategic action and promoting more inclusive and equitable workplaces can change the health and financial trajectory of today’s workforce and of future generations. Nelu Diversified Consulting Solutions partners with employers to design processes and systems that increase health equity and make benefits more accessible for employees and their family members.