The Delta threat is soaring. Will vaccination mandates surge too?

Employers are getting serious about their COVID-19 vaccination plans.

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More than half of employers are planning to require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021, new research from Willis Towers Watson finds. The consulting group’s survey, which polled 961 U.S. companies that employ a total of 9.7 million people, found that 52% of employers plan to have one or more vaccine mandate requirements by the fourth quarter. These range from requiring vaccination for employees to access common areas such as cafeterias to requiring vaccination for a subset of employees to requiring vaccination for all employees.

It’s a dramatic increase from the 21% of employers that currently have any vaccine mandates in place, Willis Towers Watson finds.

In recent weeks as Delta variant cases soar nationwide, scores of employers have announced new vaccine mandates for their employees–Walmart, United Airlines and Microsoft among them–but research is just beginning to show how serious employers are getting about vaccine requirements.

Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz

“The Delta variant has made employers take new actions to keep their workers–and workplaces–safe and healthy,” says Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson. “We expect even more employers to institute vaccine mandates in the wake of FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine.”

Related: What the Pfizer FDA approval means for employer vaccine plans

The Willis Towers Watson survey mirrors similar recent data from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), which found that the number of employers looking to mandate vaccinations is up sharply from the past several months. Over the last few weeks, 20% of companies have changed their employee vaccine policies, with an additional 33% planning or considering changes. In January, i4cp found that just 5% of organizations planned to require employees to be vaccinated. Nine percent said so in April, and 10% said so in June.

Related: These employers are requiring COVID-19 vaccines

The Willis Towers Watson survey also finds that the number of employers that will track whether employees have completed their vaccination is increasing. Nearly six in 10 (59%) currently track their workers’ vaccination status, and another 19% are planning or considering doing so later this year. A majority (62%) of those require proof of vaccination, such as completed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination cards, while 36% rely on employees to self-report.

The survey is more proof that the Delta variant–which is surging across the nation and causing sharp increases in infection, hospitalization and death rates–is dramatically changing employer plans when it comes to health and safety. In addition to vaccine mandate and verification plans, employers also are rethinking mask mandates and return-to-the-office plans. Eight in 10 respondents (80%) require employees to wear masks indoors at any location, Willis Towers Watson finds. Another 13% are planning to do so or considering it.

And 39% of employers now expect their organizations won’t reach a new normal in terms of returning to the workplace and ending pandemic-related policies and programs until the second quarter of 2022. About a quarter (26%) expect a return to the new normal in the first quarter of next year.

“We have reached a point in the pandemic where employers that have worked hard to make it easy for employees to get vaccinated are also considering approaches to make it more difficult for employees to remain unvaccinated,” says Levin-Scherz. “The one certainty right now is that employers will continue to adjust their plans through the remainder of 2021.”

Related: Surcharges for the unvaccinated: Will interest grow?

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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.