Workers Spurn Vaccine; What’s an Employer to Do?

Written by Tim Triplett

Talking to workers about the life-saving potential of COVID-19 vaccinations has turned into a personal mission for one mill executive (who asked not to be identified). “I spend at least one hour per day, every day, on COVID stuff. It’s frustrating there’s so much resistance.”

Nearly all the individuals in his corporate suite have gotten their shots, but only about 30 percent of those on the shop floor, he estimates, despite the company’s extensive campaign on the safety of the vaccines. “We have presented all the information, the science, the common sense, but….”

Unable to convince some workers to get their shots, some employers are using the “spoonful of sugar” approach and incentivizing inoculations. Salaried employees at one service center are encouraged to get their vaccine during working hours, and hourly employees are given two hours of paid time off to get each of their COVID shots.

One producer implemented a vaccine charity drive. When half the workforce had gotten their shots, the company made donations to local charities. When three-fourths had gotten inoculated, the company made even larger donations to charities chosen by the employees. “We’re just trying to get a little engagement with the community and do something cool for worthy causes,” said a manager from the company.

Legal Options for Employers?

It seems ironic that a steel mill or service center can require all workers to wear a hardhat for their own safety, but can’t require hard-headed opponents to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF’s) COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor shows that while a growing share of adults have gotten vaccinated or intend to as soon as possible, a small but persistent group (7%) say they would only get vaccinated if required to do so. The extent to which states and/or employers might adopt COVID-19 vaccine mandates remains an open question, but could affect the distribution and uptake of vaccinations, says KFF in a new report.

Legal experts say it’s unclear if employers have the right to mandate that their workers get shots, since the three vaccines—Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson—have received only emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This is likely to become a more prominent issue over time, as the need to vaccinate a large share of the U.S. population becomes more urgent in the face of variants and continued reluctance by some to get vaccinated.

The federal government’s authority to institute a general vaccine mandate is unclear, and has not yet been tested in the courts, though it is likely limited at best and would be subject to exemptions based on disability or religious objection. States’ authority to mandate vaccines to protect public health is well-established. Currently, all states require vaccines for school attendance, while state vaccine requirements for health care workers vary. More generally, though, states do not use mandates for adult vaccination and have thus far said they are not mandating COVID-19 shots, KFF reports.

Some private employers require influenza vaccines for employees in health care settings, unless prohibited by state law, and some employers and universities have already instituted mandates for COVID-19 vaccination for employees and/or students. At the same time, several states have sought to limit their ability to do so. Thus the line between individual workers’ right to make a private decision about their own healthcare and employers’ obligation to maintain a safe work environment for staff and customers is blurry. As COVID-19 vaccination efforts progress, it will be important to monitor any changes in government or employer policies as well as public opinion on vaccine mandates, KFF notes.

Said the frustrated mill exec: “Vaccination can help save your life. It can help save your family’s life. It definitely will help us all get back to normal.”

Editor’s note: SMU is actively discussing how we are going to handle the issue of safety as we work towards resuming “normal” in-person conferences and workshops later this year. The “logical” answer is to require proof of vaccination prior to allowing entrance into a live venue. A second option is to require on-site testing for those who have not been vaccinated. We are aware we will need to follow the protocols developed by the CDC, the state government where the conference/workshop takes place, local facility requirements and any other safety measures we may choose to add. We do not yet know what will be required, but we believe life will be much easier for those who are vaccinated prior to attending meetings, workshops and conferences.

By Tim Triplett,


Latest in Economy