Employers could require COVID-19 vaccine, but they’ll probably just strongly encourage it
Here’s one way to get a lot more people to take a vaccine: require it as a condition of employment.
Private companies can adopt that policy, which could have a big impact on the uptake of the new COVID-19 vaccines now under rapid development. But such a move would be controversial.
The risk of a potential backlash can be seen in the vocal reaction against mask mandates coming from some corners. Given the current politics, imagine the potential opposition to requiring a coronavirus vaccine in order to come to the workplace.
“Employers are not trying to make a political statement, but they may be accused of it,” said L.J. Tan, chief strategy officer at the Immunization Action Coalition in St. Paul, Minn. “There’s a lot of autonomy and independence in the U.S., and that creates constant tension with the altruistic goal of trying to protect yourself and those around you.”
In the health care industry, it’s fairly common for employers to require vaccines. The underlying premise is that health providers must take steps to protect their most vulnerable patients.
Last year, almost 45% of health care workers said their employers required a flu shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That aggressive approach paid off with 98% flu coverage among employees at those firms – twice as high as the flu immunization rate for the general public.
Outside of health care, employers are much more likely to recommend a vaccine, rather than require it. A mandate can lead to worker objections over medical conditions, sincerely held religious beliefs and disabilities – and their claims are protected.
“In light of these exemptions and the risk of discrimination, the (Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission) has advised that it is best practice to simply encourage employees to take the influenza vaccine rather than to mandate it,” two lawyers wrote in July in The National Law Review.
“A (COVID) mandate would be an issue for many employees,” said LaToya Alexander, a lawyer for Polsinelli in Dallas and co-author of the article. “Based on my clients, most don’t want to require a vaccine. We’re hearing a lot of, ‘What should we do? What can we do?’”
Employers often go to lengths to increase the uptake of annual flu shots in order to promote a healthier workforce. Many sponsor health fairs and bring in nurses to administer the vaccines for free. Some offer prizes and other incentives, and the COVID vaccine campaign is likely to have similar elements.
“It’ll be like the flu shot – plus, plus, plus,” said Harry D. Jones, a longtime employment lawyer for Littler Mendelson in Dallas. “There will be a lot more pressure to get it done because the cost to morale would be so great if companies have to exit the workplace again.”
Many people already complain about the fatigue from social distancing and wearing masks.