How employers are reacting to the hold on Biden’s vaccine mandate

Although the Biden administration’s employer vaccine mandate is on hold due to legal challenges, some employers aren’t wasting time in putting employee vaccination mandates in place.

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A new survey out today from consulting firm Willis Towers Watson finds that 57% of all respondents either require or plan to require COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees. The survey of 543 U.S. employers, conducted Nov. 12-18, found that 18% of employers currently require vaccinations and another 7% are going to no matter what the ruling is. Another 32% say they are waiting to see if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) takes effect and will put a mandate in place if so.

Not only that, but significantly more employers say they think vaccine mandates could help recruit and retain employees (48%) rather than worry it will contribute to employees leaving their organizations (31%). Importantly, the survey was conducted before the discovery of the latest COVID-19 variant, Omicron, which is concerning health experts and may spur more serious employer action as a result in the coming weeks.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court temporarily halted the Biden administration’s rule, which required employers with 100 or more workers to implement a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for their workers–or offer a weekly testing alternative to those who refuse or are unable to receive a vaccine. As a result, the Labor Department’s OSHA said it is suspending enforcement of the Biden administration’s employer vaccine rule, which was originally slated to go into effect Jan. 4.

Related: OSHA suspends vaccine enforcement; what’s the next move for HR?

“Despite the current holding pattern pending the court rulings, we advise employers to proceed with plans to implement the mandate as well as other efforts to protect their workers,” says Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader, Willis Towers Watson. “Employers can encourage vaccinations and boosters with scheduling flexibility and time off, promote regular testing, stipulate mask-wearing on-site to ensure employee health and safety–and support this with regular communications.”

Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD, MBA

The Willis Towers Watson survey finds that employers also are getting serious about other COVID-19 safety measures–especially as rates rise across the country and are expected to increase more because of the holiday season when more gatherings occur. Nearly all employers will offer testing (84%), most on a weekly basis (80%), for employees who are returning to the workplace. One-quarter (25%) will require unvaccinated employees to pay for testing unless prohibited by state law, and nearly all employers (90%) require or plan to require masks to be worn indoors.

Experts told HRE recently that they expected most employers to continue to implement vaccine mandates–both in preparation for the federal mandate rule and in an effort to protect their workers, and workplace, from COVID-19.

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“When the mandates were announced, companies took action to comply. Many shifted from encouraging to requiring vaccinations,” says Carol Morrison, senior research analyst at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), noting that a September survey of employers from i4cp found that 29% of employers were planning or planned to require full vaccination of all employees, up from 10% who planned to in June. Growing numbers of employers also “view following through with vaccination mandates as a means of providing safe and healthy working conditions while helping to reduce the threat of more COVID outbreaks,” she says.

See also: COVID booster shots are here. What should employers do?

Although Morrison says OSHA’s suspension of enforcement leaves employers in a difficult spot, as vaccination policies were already complicated, walking back plans may be detrimental for employers.

Carol Morrison, i4cp

“If leaders have announced mandates for their organizations, rescinding those decisions now–perhaps only to reinstate them later–would likely cause further confusion and frustration for employees,” she says. “We’ve all been living with uncertainty for nearly two years. We know how that feels. So, it makes sense that some leaders choose to continue forward with what they’ve already started. It’s one way they can lessen disruption for their workers while we all wait to see how the legal actions play out.”

Even before Biden’s mandate, employers were moving toward stricter vaccination policies after months of simply encouraging workers to get the shot. Companies including United Airlines, Tyson Foods and more put vaccination requirements in place.

Willis Towers Watson’s survey also finds that fewer employees are relying on incentivizing employees to roll up their sleeves as vaccination mandates tick up. Three-quarters (75%) offer no financial incentives, one in nine (11%) offer some financial incentive and 14% have discontinued or plan to discontinue financial incentives.

“Much has changed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Levin-Scherz says. “Yet, vaccination, masking, distancing and better ventilation remain essential in protecting workers from the virus and its variants.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former 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.