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Can Your Organization Mandate Vaccinations for Workers? And Should It?

February 16, 2021
By Mike Schmidt

One question receiving attention in the U.S. is whether employers can require their employees to get vaccinated. In the U.S., grade schools generally require certain vaccinations before a student can attend classes. But can employers or the government do something similar?

In short, yes. Employers can mandate the vaccine if they allow exceptions for certain employees. That was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) determination in guidance it issued on December 16, when it said employers can require COVID-19 vaccines and bar employees from the workplace if they refuse to do so. The exceptions? Employees who have disabilities that make them unable to take the vaccine and those who object on religious grounds. In both cases, employers need to seek a “reasonable accommodation” for the employee’s position.

The EEOC ruling followed guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permitting employers to require influenza vaccinations. There was also an earlier EEOC decision allowing businesses to compel employees to submit to COVID-19 tests as a condition of employment.

It is highly unlikely the federal government will issue a blanket mandate that all Americans must be vaccinated because that would be a highly controversial step. The Biden administration will encourage Americans to get the vaccine for the good of the country. President Biden has said mask-wearing is patriotic, and he may use similar language when the vaccine is widely available. Schools may require COVID-19 vaccinations. Such policy will be set at the state level and thus will vary.

Companies, for their part, are trying to find the right balance. While a recent Yale poll found 72% of current and recent CEOs of major companies are open to a vaccine mandate, so far most companies are using carrots, rather than sticks. Some are encouraging workers to be vaccinated by offering them time off of work or financial incentives. Other companies are partnering with medical providers to administer vaccines on-site to employees. One airline CEO has said he wants the company to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for employees. Two cruise lines have announced that the vaccine will be required for employees and all passengers.

U.S. polls in December showed 60% to 70% of the public want to be vaccinated. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey that month found that only about one-third of the public was willing to get the vaccine as soon as it became available; 39% wanted to “wait and see” how the vaccine was working for other people before being vaccinated themselves. Nine percent said they would be vaccinated only if it is required for work, school or other activities, while 15% said they would not get a vaccine.

Considerations for employers

Long before COVID-19, vaccinations were a divisive issue. A significant part of the population did not want to be vaccinated for various reasons, including concerns about impacts on their health, or for religious or other reasons. Organizations weighing their vaccine policies should recognize that this will be among their most consequential decisions, affecting workers, their families and the company’s reputation. Customers, partners, local communities and competitors will take note.

Organization leaders should consult their internal team and outside advisers to establish their position on the COVID-19 vaccines as they would any other important decision. In our Your Next Defining Moment: Navigating the COVID-19 Vaccine Landscape report, we’ll cover some of the factors that will be important for organizations to consider. In addition, organization leaders and communicators should ask themselves:

  • If we don’t want to mandate vaccines, do we want to encourage our workforce to get the vaccine when it is available to them? How can we most effectively do that? Who do we think will champion our decision and who will not, and how do we address those reactions?
  • How does the vaccine issue fit within our company’s overall mission? For instance, there may be greater expectation that healthcare organizations take a firm position on vaccines – when compared to professional services firms.
  • When should our organization roll out its vaccine position? Do we know what others in our industry are doing? Are we effectively tracking that information? How have employees and the public responded to other organizations that already have shared their plans? And what are they saying about our plans?

View the “Your Next Defining Moment: Navigating the COVID-19 Vaccine Landscape” report here.