Employers deciding if they’ll require COVID-19 vaccines

Employers are in the midst of discussing and deciding if they’ll require their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

A new survey of 211 business and talent leaders from human capital research firm i4cp finds that most organizations (41%) say they are still deciding whether they will mandate COVID-19 vaccination for their employees. Just 5% say they will require employees to get the vaccine, while 39% say they won’t. Another 11% say they don’t know yet.

“Large percentages of respondents reported discussions taking place, but no firm plans yet,” says Carol Morrison, lead researcher on workforce wellbeing for i4cp. “For business leaders, the wellbeing of employees, customers, suppliers and other organizational stakeholders is a vital concern. The performance and survival of business enterprises is at risk if workforce wellbeing is in jeopardy. So decisions about vaccination are crucial and challenging.”

Choosing whether or not to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine will likely be one of the biggest decisions for HR and company leaders this year. In guidance released last month, the Employment Opportunity Commission said employers can require that employees get vaccinated as a condition of going to work. However, they must be prepared to exempt employees with disabilities and religious objections. In those cases, an employer must offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee–such as working remotely or being reassigned–as long as the accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” for the employer.

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

Legal experts say organizations will likely tread carefully when it comes to requiring vaccination given the polarization surrounding the vaccine, as well as the workplace complexities that might arise around requiring it. However, many expect a handful of employers to require employees to get inoculated as vaccines can provide organizations a way to safely bring back employees to the office, get back to business and turn a profit.

“If employees can’t work remotely, they need to do everything possible to get them back and get customers back in the door,” Shannon Farmer, a labor and employment lawyer at Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr who is advising employers on the COVID vaccine, told HRE recently. “If you’re in hospitality or the entertainment industry, if this 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.” There may also be an appeal for patrons if a company says it mandated vaccines for all of its workers, she adds.

Despite hesitation over mandating COVID-19 vaccination, most experts agree on one thing: that the vast majority of employers will encourage the vaccine. The i4cp survey finds that 68% of organizations plan to encourage employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine once they become widely available to the public, while another 19% say they are discussing the possibility but haven’t yet decided. Just 5% say they won’t be encouraging employees to get vaccinated.

Related: HR’s next big job: Convincing employees to get COVID vaccines

The survey revealed that organizations are considering a number of strategies to encourage workers to get vaccinated, including partnering with a healthcare provider or pharmacy to provide COVID-19 vaccinations onsite at the workplace; offering paid time off to employees to get vaccinated (for both a single-dose vaccine and/or a second booster shot later); linking vaccination to employee wellbeing programs and providing educational material on the merits of vaccination.

“Survey data shows that corporate decision-makers are more comfortable with encouraging, versus requiring, employees to get vaccinated,” Morrison says. “Obviously, the need for the U.S. and nations worldwide to stop the spread of COVID-19 is paramount to saving lives, but also to restoring economies, re-opening–or fully opening–businesses, and returning people to good health and productivity.”

Kathryn Mayer
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.