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Mandating vaccines amid a worker shortage could spell trouble for corporate America

“It’s so hard to find workers now that, if you know a certain percentage of your workers are going to quit [due to a vaccine mandate], you're not going to disrupt that,” said one HR expert.
Image: A worker assembles a box at an Amazon fulfillment center in Raleigh, N.C., on June 21, 2021.
A worker assembles a box at an Amazon fulfillment center in Raleigh, N.C., on June 21, 2021.Rachel Jessen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The trickle of companies taking action on employee vaccinations has swelled to a flood in recent days, with businesses from Google to United Airlines announcing requirements about Covid-19 inoculation.

Although the vaccines have been widely available for months, John Ho, a labor and employment attorney and chair of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration practice at the law firm of Cozen O'Connor, said it’s unsurprising that companies have been slower to set policies, since the science is rapidly evolving and even public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding masking and transmission risk based on vaccination status has changed over time.

“This has been a boomerang of different mandates,” Ho said, adding that OSHA has not yet formally adopted the CDC’s recent guidance, creating a challenge of mixed messages for HR and legal departments.

“Looking at my client base, most employers are still not mandating vaccines, although certain industries have implemented mandates at a greater percentage,” Ho said. “The ‘Operation Warp Speed’ title was probably not a good one, in retrospect,” he said, in that it might have triggered vaccine hesitancy among people who came away with the perception that the process was rushed or corners were cut.

“Once the FDA moves the vaccines into a permanent status, some employers will be more inclined to implement a mandate policy."

One sticking point appears to be the emergency-use authorizations the available vaccines currently have from the Food and Drug Administration, although the New York Times recently reported that full approval could come as soon as early next month. “Once the FDA moves it into a permanent status, some employers will be more inclined to implement a mandate policy,” Ho said.

Consulting firm Gartner has been running regular surveys that show a small but growing inclination towards requiring vaccines. In February, only about 2 percent of companies said they would require vaccines for employees returning to the workplace. By the end of July, that number was up to around 9 percent — still a small fraction, to be sure, but a very large jump on a percentage basis.

“My guess is if we ask that question in a couple of weeks, it'll be even higher,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research for the human resources practice at Gartner.

“We’ve noticed a huge increase, just recently, in the share of postings that either mandate, or request employees be vaccinated,” said Julia Pollak, labor economist at jobs platform ZipRecruiter. “Once the military and more federal agencies require it, when you see more major employers require vaccinations, that will probably set a trend for other employers to follow,” she added. (The company’s data analysis doesn’t currently distinguish between encouragement and requirement due to varieties in verbiage regarding how companies communicate their preferences.)

Still, many companies might prefer to use carrots rather than sticks, by encouraging workers with bonuses, access or mask privileges unavailable to vaccine holdouts. “People are more open to getting the vaccine if it's not phrased as a mandate. There's quite a lot of pushback to mandates,” Pollak noted.

“I think employers are continuing to use and are increasing incentives… I think President Biden set the example here,” Ho said, noting that offering the choice of vaccination versus a regimen of potentially inconvenient testing and safety protocols might be enough to nudge some people into rolling up their sleeves.

Among the companies that have announced plans to require vaccinations, Ho said there were noticeable differences in which employees were at the front of the vaccination line, he said. “I think the folks that are doing it are focusing on their white collar folks first.”

Meat producer Tyson Foods seems to be one exception to the rule, after meatpacking plants became an early hotbed for Covid transmission. The company said this week that workers in its facilities would have to be vaccinated by Nov. 1.

United Airlines executives said on Friday that all employees would have to be vaccinated by Oct. 25, although the company has indicated that the vast majority of its pilots and flight attendants already have done so.

More typical are vaccine edicts from companies like Disney, Uber and Walmart, which are requiring various categories of executive, supervisory or corporate headquarters-based employees to be vaccinated when they return to the office, but in general not currently mandating vaccination for hourly or off-site workers.

There are a few reasons for this white-blue-collar split, HR experts say. A primary one has to do with the tight labor market. Companies like retailers and restaurants are scrambling to get and keep hourly employees. “These companies are competing for hourly workers,” Ho said. Requiring this pool of workers to be vaccinated could, in certain parts of the country, be a considerable hurdle to hiring. “It’s so hard to find workers now that, if you know a certain percentage of your workers are going to quit, you're not going to disrupt that,” he said.

In addition to retention, recruitment also looms as a potential issue. “The bigger concern that they've got is they’re having a hard time hiring anybody for frontline roles if they say you have to be vaccinated,” Kropp said.

White-collar workers, especially those on the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, presumably would have fewer alternatives available to them if they were to quit, or would be less willing to sacrifice seniority or uproot their families over a standoff about the Covid-19 vaccine.

“In a tight labor market where there are lots of opportunities, you may see people move… I don’t think we’ll see a huge effect on retention, but we certainly could see quits increase,” Pollak said. “You may not see it in the macro numbers.”

There are also costs for companies to consider. “One of the questions that's still not entirely clear is who pays for vaccination time. If you’re mandating it, that certainly creates a much stronger argument that all that time has to be paid for,” Ho said. While salaried workers could be given a day or half-day off to get vaccinated without incurring any upfront costs, hourly workers would need to be compensated for the time spent acquiring their inoculations, contributing an added expense as well as an administrative headache. And some hourly workers are represented by unions, and organized labor — even in the health care sector, where many members presumably have seen firsthand the ravages of Covid — has been resistant to mandates.

There are noticeable differences in which employees are at the front of the vaccination line, with companies 'focusing on their white collar folks first.'

But there also is a philosophical argument to be made for having CEOs roll up their sleeves before their lowest-paid employees do. “I think one overriding theme is if you're making your execs or supervisors do it, it's a great sign of leadership doing it, and getting buy-in from the rank and file,” Ho said.

Even though hourly workers like delivery drivers, warehouse workers and cashiers face a greater exposure risk to the coronavirus than the white-collar employees who can work from home, mandating a vaccine that a sizable minority of Americans still view with suspicion could trigger significant backlash.

“When you're doing it the other way around — top to bottom — I think the optics look like a much easier sell,” Ho said.

Kropp also said the greater visibility of Big Business in the conversation around culture and leadership plays a role in vaccine strategy.

“The other factor that we hear from some companies making this decision is one of the other major trends that’s been going on is there's this belief that companies need to take a leading role in the societal, political and cultural debates of the day,” he said, pointing to corporate America’s engagement with racial justice and voting rights movements.

“It’s about setting the right example and doing the right thing... having to be responsible to their stakeholders, and not just their shareholders,” he said.