As universities mandate vaccines, will more employers join them?

'This is a conversation that HR leaders need to be having with their people now,' says one expert, as employers get serious about COVID-19 inoculation.
By: | April 30, 2021 • 3 min read
(Image: Adobe)

Several universities across the nation are requiring their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a sign that employers are getting serious about vaccines as they mull a return to the workplace.

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Five major Colorado universities—the University of Colorado, University of Denver, Colorado State University, University of Northern Colorado and Metropolitan State University of Denver—became the latest group of universities to mandate inoculations, starting in the fall, for staff, faculty and students. The California State University and University of California systems and Syracuse University are among the other universities mandating vaccines for workers as well.

Justin Holland

Employers that plan to return their workers to the office, including universities, ultimately will have to require employees to get vaccinated to safely allow for it to happen, says Justin Holland, CEO and founder of HealthJoy, a benefits company that works with some 700 employers.

“It’s pretty clear that there is no scenario for most companies where employees are returning unvaccinated to the office in 2021,” he says. “This is a conversation that HR leaders need to be having with their people now.”

To find out more about employers’ COVID-19 vaccine strategies, don’t miss HRE’s upcoming virtual (and free!) health and benefits conference. To register, click here.

Handfuls of employers in recent weeks have announced COVID-19 vaccine plans, with most educating employees on the merits of vaccines, providing extra leave or vacation time to get vaccinated and facilitating worker vaccination in an effort to encourage workers to get a shot. But mandating vaccination for workers has been a far less embraced strategy thus far.

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Related: Still weighing vaccine incentives? Here’s what 12 employers have done

Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in December that employers can require that employees get vaccinated as a condition of going to work, with some accommodation exceptions, many experts predicted the majority of employers would turn to encouragement given the polarization surrounding the vaccine, as well as the workplace complexities that might arise around requiring it.

Related: Employers can legally require COVID vaccines—but will they?

But that vaccine strategy may shift, especially with large universities—major employers with several thousand employees each—beginning to announce they are mandating inoculation. “I have spoken with dozens of other CEOs and leaders of organizations about returning to the office, and every single one will have a mandatory vaccination policy for those who want to be in the office,” Holland says.

Shannon Farmer, a labor and employment lawyer at Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr who is advising employers on the COVID vaccine, agrees, recently telling HRE that employers, especially those with employees who can’t work remotely, will need to do everything possible to get workers back and customers back in the door. “If you’re in hospitality or the entertainment industry, if [a vaccine mandate] is the way to get your business open again when you’ve had to be closed, you’re going to do everything you can to get it open.”

Data also indicates requiring vaccination may be an emerging trend: Willis Towers Watson, which surveyed 446 employers, found that just 10% of employers are planning or considering requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of employment, though nearly one in four (23%) are planning or considering requiring employees to get vaccinated for them to return to the worksite.

Holland says HR leaders will have to find strategies, including vaccine mandates, to combat hesitancy among employees reluctant to get shots.

“Given the amount of misinformation and anti-vaccination sentiment floating around, it may well be a hard conversation. It might be uncomfortable. But before we can go back to in-person work, I think it’s something that will need to happen,” he says. “I expect these conversations to really come to a head over the next few months, and that puts pressure on HR teams to get ahead of vaccine misinformation.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.