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Goldman Sachs memo stirs up debate over employee vaccinations

With employees thinking about the return to work, employers have started to ask for vaccination statuses — or not.
Dr. Kishore Nath holds a vaccination card provided to residents who have been given the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at Viamonte, a retirement community in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Dec. 30, 2020.
Companies are more willing to engage on social and cultural issues than they have been in the past — but still, they have little appetite for the potential legal and public relations headaches related to vaccination mandates. Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images file

An internal Goldman Sachs memo obtained by The New York Times offers a glimpse into what is likely to be a fraught issue that companies would like very much to keep under wraps as return-to-work dates near: how to square employees' often conflicting concerns, beliefs and demands about Covid-19 vaccinations.

The investment bank said U.S.-based employees who hadn't already done so were required to report their vaccination statuses to the company by noon ET on Thursday, The Times reported. The memo didn't require that workers be vaccinated or to provide proof of vaccination — just to report which vaccine they received and when.

"The employer mentality has been really changing as vaccinations have become widely available," said Michael Schmidt, vice chair of the labor and employment department at the law firm of Cozen O'Connor.

Directives that ask about vaccine status, like Goldman Sachs', could be the first step to eventually issuing employee mandates.

"It's possible, by design, that they're laying the groundwork," Schmidt said. "I think employers in greater numbers have been asking for vaccination status because they are actively in planning mode and want to have a sense of what their policy is going to be later in the year."

"Mandating proof of vaccination might become more common closer to the end of 2021 and into 2022."

Schmidt suggested that mandating might become more common, saying, "I think we'll see more of that as we get closer to the end of 2021 and into 2022."

Even asking about vaccinations is a topic over which corporate America is split. A survey of more than 200 human resources executives last month by the consulting firm Gartner found a nearly even divide, with 52 percent of respondents saying they plan to track their employees' vaccine statuses, compared to 48 percent indicating that they don't. Only "a very small percentage" required proof, such as the submission of vaccination card scans or photos.

"We had an active discussion about whether we should mandate this," said Amy Frampton, head of marketing at BambooHR, a human resources software company. She said the executive team for the 900-person company wrestled with the question before deciding not to mandate but to encourage employees to get vaccinated and give them paid time off to do so. "For our company and our culture, we just decided it was the right way to go," she said.

"I think there's a lot of reasons to mandate. This isn't an anti-mandate position. ... It's a slightly softer take," she said, adding that the company decided that vaccination was "an individual choice" and that BambooHR's 900 employees have been given the choice of in-office, hybrid or remote work. Employees in the office — regardless of vaccination status — must wear masks and work at desks set up for social distancing, she said.

While companies have lately been more willing to engage on social and cultural issues than they have been in the past, such as speaking out against restrictive voting laws in a number of Republican-led states, they have little appetite for the potential legal and public relations headaches related to questions about disclosure and vaccination mandates.

"Masks were so politicized. Vaccinations are politicized, as well," said Brian Kropp, chief of research for the human resources practice at Gartner. "There are a significant percentage of employees who feel it is not the right of their employer to ask." Employers, he said, are "getting a lot of pushback from their employees about even asking the question."

Gartner found that only about 10 percent of companies intend to mandate vaccinations for people working on-site.

Schmidt hypothesized that companies are taking their time in anticipation of the conflict that mandates could create. "I just think they don't want to deal right now with the accommodation process and distinguishing objections," he said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, recently issued guidance specifying that employers can require employees to be vaccinated and offer incentives for them to do so, which is likely to embolden some companies to engage more with their workers about vaccinations.

"Masks were so politicized. Vaccinations are politicized, as well."

Frampton said the guidance helped provide additional clarity for BambooHR's customers. "The EEOC declaration is going to give companies a lot of comfort and understanding" that they can choose to mandate vaccinations if they want to, she said.

Some governments are addressing the topic proactively: Santa Clara County, California, for instance, mandated that employers monitor employees' vaccination statuses — a stance that has prompted a backlash from some local small-business owners, NBC Bay Area reported.

But according to a memo from the Biden administration, even the federal government is reluctant to make the issue a red line. Reuters reported Thursday that the coming guidance from agencies overseeing federal workers will say that neither disclosure of vaccine status nor a requirement to be vaccinated should be prerequisites for employees' return to the office.

Kropp said the questions about vaccinations in the workplace — balancing, for instance, one worker's religious convictions with another worker's worry about exposing an immunocompromised relative to the coronavirus — could create long-lasting shifts in who works where.

As in many other aspects of corporate culture, there are likely to be industrial and geographical lines of demarcation — and the lines could leave a lasting impression.

"What we tend to see is tech companies tend to be more paternalistic in terms of offering more services, more support, more care to their employees," Kropp said. "The way we're starting to see it shake out is the more white-collar and IP-intensive the work, the more paternalistic. ... The less white-collar, the less IP-intensive it is, the less likely they are" to get involved, he said.

"We're going to see culture split along those different dimensions," he said. "Employees will be able to make choices as to what kind of company they want to work for ... and what implications does that have."