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Cappelli: Has the time come for employers to mandate vaccines?

Peter Cappelli
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

We are all disappointed to read another pandemic column, but it continues to be the hot topic. At the moment the particular issue is employer vaccine mandates, which raises some of the toughest human resource judgment calls.

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And the federal vaccine-or-testing mandate that the Supreme Court invalidated this week did not change employers’ choices here by much.

The good news, which we are all hoping for, is that COVID-19 is moving away from something unusual and deadly in the direction of something more manageable like the flu. Not that we are OK with the flu, of course, it still kills as many as 50,000 people in the U.S. each year. Unlike “classic” COVID, the Omicron variety is super infectious but appears to cause less serious illness. We also have a much better idea of how to treat it, new prescriptions for doing so are now available, and of course, we have vaccines.

Because so many people are getting it all at once, though, the Omicron wave of patients is threatening to overwhelm hospitals even if we can treat them successfully once there. In my state of Pennsylvania, the evidence this week is that about one-third of the people in Pennsylvania are still unvaccinated, yet they account for 90 percent of the hospitalizations. Maybe things are the same in your state. It’s hard not to believe that the unvaccinated are responsible not only for hospitals being stretched to the breaking point but for the worst aspects of the continuing pandemic.

So, if you are an employer, what do you do? I thought it was sensible early on for employers not to pick a fight with the unvaccinated because there were so many of them and because it was tied up with political fights. Most employers treaded carefully to encourage employees to get vaccinated and to not stigmatize them. Let public pressure push them along.

As we begin the second year with vaccines that work remarkably well, attention ought to shift to the big majority of the workforce that is vaccinated. These workers have rights in this context as well, and it seems clear that their interest–staying healthy in the face of infection, which increases dramatically being around the unvaccinated–beats the rights of those who are unvaccinated by choice. The latter group has a pretty weak claim. They may not trust the science, but that is an empirical problem, not a moral problem, and in the meantime, they are putting others at risk.

Related: Employers and Omicron: What’s the best response amid the surge?

Let’s be clear that employers are not the government, whose ability to force people to be vaccinated may be more limited and problematic. Our individual rights, or to put it less positively our lack of responsibility to others, remain a distinctively American phenomenon. But employers clearly have the legal right to require that their employers meet all kinds of requirements, including vaccinations.

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Should they now? Stories in the press indicate that the patience of the vaccinated with the unvaccinated has run out. Maybe you’ve also seen the surveys showing that concern about getting infected remains one of, if not the, most important factor keeping employees from wanting to come back to the workplace and those without jobs from trying to get one.

The issue now should be the rights of the vast majority of our current employees who have been vaccinated. They have been through a lot during the pandemic, and the surveys I’ve seen indicate that their trust in their employer is pretty high. Most think we were looking out for them. Are we?

No, we are not. Mandatory testing, which most employers without mandates use as a substitute for vaccination, can’t be justified with these new variants. Even daily testing is not enough to catch infections because the Omicron and Delta variants become infectious too quickly. We’ve also been bringing more and more people back to the workplace: Census data indicates that only 11 percent are now working full-time from home, down from a third at the peak of the pandemic.

HR people know that nothing is more divisive than fairness questions, and treating one group differently from another always raises those issues. Allowing one increasingly small group to put the others at risk, especially when there is no serious justification for doing so, demonstrates a lack of concern for the other employees. We should stop thinking about mandates as squeezing the pretty weak rights of one group–who don’t have to comply, of course, they can always go elsewhere–and protecting the more powerful rights of others.

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