US companies risk a backlash if they insist that staff be vaccinated against Covid-19 before returning to the workplace, according to corporate advisers who warn that employers’ desire to mandate vaccination will clash with deep concerns among many employees.
A straw poll of the leaders of some of America’s largest companies last week found strong support for vaccine mandates, with 71 per cent of the 150 chief executives at a Yale School of Management summit saying that vaccination should be required at work.
Similarly, the Society for Human Resource Management reported on Friday that 61 per cent of its members plan to “encourage” employees to get the vaccine and 38 per cent see vaccination as “very necessary” for their organisation’s sustainability.
But a CNBC/SurveyMonkey poll of more than 9,000 US workers showed more wariness among employees, with 41 per cent saying they oppose requirements that everyone at their workplaces be vaccinated before they can return to work in person, including a quarter who say they “strongly” reject the idea.
“I’d be counselling against everybody assuming a mandatory vaccine at work is appropriate,” David Nabarro, a special envoy to the World Health Organisation’s director-general on Covid-19, told the Financial Times. Companies had “a very important role” to play in encouraging widespread vaccination, but should do so through transparent discussions with workers, he said.
Forcing employees to be vaccinated was “a Venus fly trap for business,” warned Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm. Rather than risk an employee backlash, he said, companies should be trying to inform and persuade them about the benefits of vaccination.
In guidance issued to its clients last week, the law firm Gibson Dunn wrote that employers might hope to stay on the sidelines of the “vaccine wars” but were likely to find themselves on the front lines, “caught between public health imperatives, liability fears, and a restive workforce.”
Other employment lawyers said clients had expressed concern about possible compensation claims from employees who experience severe side effects.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week clarified that companies could bar employees from workplaces if they refuse to be vaccinated, subject to religious and medical exemptions.
But with vaccination not mandated at the federal or state level, and with some states forbidding companies from insisting that employees be vaccinated, the decision has been largely left to employers. That has left them “walking a tightrope” between supporting their business and supporting their employees, said Lisa Frydenlund, a human resources adviser at SHRM.
Ms Frydenlund said she had talked to one company which was considering offering employees another $1 per hour if they agreed to be vaccinated, “but that in itself can get a little tricky so I think legal counsel will be busy over the next few months.”
“My personal belief has always been that in public health you get the best results in building trusting relationships with [the] public, and that compelling people to behave in a particular way is generally not a good idea,” said Dr Nabarro. “That’s particularly important right at this time because there’s an uncertainty about these vaccines in the minds of a lot of people.”
Polling last month by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald Research found that nearly a quarter of US employees said they would definitely not get a Covid-19 vaccine, and studies by the Pew Research Center have shown stronger levels of scepticism among Republicans and African-Americans.
Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor of business and economics at Columbia Business School, said large companies had faced public scrutiny of their treatment of employees throughout the pandemic and should think carefully about whether mandates are needed.
“In highly packed environments like factories where we know this virus is going to spread, this is very likely going to need to be mandatory, but that’s not the case for all workforces,” she said: “For office-based businesses that have transitioned nearly entirely to remote workplaces it’s not so obvious that a mandatory vaccine policy is going to be the best policy.”