Will Biden’s vaccine mandate drive away employees?

Survey: 60% support vaccine requirements, but rules could be deciding factor whether some employees stay or go

Business leaders in Utah and across the country are waiting for further details as they mull the potential challenges, and consequences, of President Joe Biden’s new slate of rules unveiled Thursday that mandates COVID-19 vaccinations for the employees of larger U.S. companies.

And while the announcement drew a strong negative response from Republican elected officials, new data suggests a clear majority of U.S. employees are in favor of vaccine mandates. However, things get a little murkier when surveyors asked what workers on both sides of the vaccine debate were prepared to do about it, up to and including leaving their current jobs, an issue already plaguing U.S. employers amid a strained jobs market.

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Biden announced a six-point initiative Thursday to boost vaccinations, improve access to testing and make coronavirus treatments more widely available. The new mandates cover about 100 million workers, or two-thirds of all workers in the U.S., administration officials said.

Under the plan, companies with 100 or more employees would have to require their workers to be vaccinated or undergo at least weekly COVID-19 testing.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in coming weeks plans to issue an emergency temporary standard implementing the new requirement, which will cover 80 million private-sector workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Businesses that don’t comply could face fines of up to $14,000 per violation.

The Salt Lake Chamber, whose members represent a wide range of business types from across the state, cited its work to encourage Utah employees and their families to get vaccinated but also noted it has concerns about government overreach. Salt Lake Chamber officials said Utah employers have numerous unanswered questions as they await implementation details on the mandates.

“The Salt Lake Chamber remains concerned about the impact of the delta and other emerging variants of the coronavirus, and recognizes vaccination is the most important tool we have to end the pandemic,” a chamber statement reads. “Consequently, the chamber has worked diligently to encourage vaccinations across the state including our ‘Bring It Home’ campaign this summer, and it remains our high priority to be vigilant to mitigate the health and economic challenges the virus and its emerging variants are creating. 

“As a business association the chamber is always concerned about government mandates that reach into employers’ operations and employees’ private lives. We are also concerned about issues of legal uncertainty, employer liability, employees potentially leaving an already constrained workforce, and the risk of deepening political divisiveness surrounding vaccination.”

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Elizabeth Converse, executive director of Utah tech sector advocacy group Silicon Slopes Commons, said political blustering is only serving to create more difficulties for Utah employers as they work to navigate the ongoing challenges of the public health crisis.

“The constant conflicting messages between federal and state government officials has only added to the confusion of a very difficult time for industries across the country,” Converse said. “Our local business leaders genuinely care about the health and safety of our workforce.

“Only one-third of our companies have fully returned to work in office. We know what’s at risk, and that a person’s life has more value than political blustering.”

She added that the rise of variants and positive COVID-19 cases is “staggering and avoidable” and that Utah businesses were looking for directives untainted by politics as they decide whether to delay or modify return-to-work plans.

“We need true guidance on this issue, based on science and not elections,” Converse said. “Vaccinations are absolutely essential to putting an end to this virus. We know that. Our companies are doing everything they can to encourage employees to get vaccinated if they can.

“But for Utah to really crush the curve, the political bickering has to stop.”

Utah tech giant and customer experience innovator Qualtrics said it has, like many companies in the state, encouraged its employees to get vaccinated and worked to ensure its staffers were provided time to accommodate those appointments when needed but has stopped short of issuing its own mandates.

Sydney Heimbrock, Qualtrics’ current chief industry adviser for the public sector and former official with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, said implementing the new vaccination rules will require businesses to move forward with “empathy and understanding” for the various stances embraced by their employees.

“The president’s order means employers can stop discussing whether to impose a vaccination requirement and begin the next important step of communicating with their employees about how they will act on it,” Heimbrock said in a statement. “Vaccine requirements are a deeply polarizing national issue, but nearly two-thirds of employees support a mandate where they work.

“Employers who have already had to navigate a sudden transition to remote work and complex safety requirements in the last 18 months now face their next hurdle: soliciting important health information from all employees. This will require organizations to lead with empathy and mutual understanding.”

As large U.S. employers watch for the follow-up information from OSHA, many are concerned the vaccination mandates could serve to exacerbate an already strained labor market that has left many industries starved for workers amid a wave of resignations and return-to-work hesitancy.

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Qualtrics in Orem is pictured on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Last month Qualtrics published results of its own national survey effort, testing the sentiments of workers in three major employment sectors — technology, government and retail — when it comes to vaccination mandates. The research found that, overall, 60% of those surveyed supported vaccine requirements but that “vaccine rules could ultimately be the deciding factor for whether some workers decide to stay at a company or go, with almost a quarter of employees (23%) saying they would strongly consider leaving their place of work if their employers mandated vaccines.”

On the flip side, 56% of tech workers said they would consider leaving their jobs if vaccine mandates were not put in place.

Other notable data points from the survey include:

  • Among tech workers, 75% support vaccine mandates at work.
  • Among government employees, 58% support vaccine mandates at work.
  • Fifty-nine percent of retail employees support vaccine mandates at work.
  • Sixty-three percent of men say they support vaccine mandates at work vs. 56% of women.
  • Of those who identify as Democrats, 81% say they support vaccine mandates at work. Only 45% of Republicans say the same.

More than 177 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but confirmed cases of the virus have shot up in recent weeks. They’ve now reached an average of about 140,000 cases per day. On average, about 1,000 Americans are dying from the virus daily, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

”The business community is really going to appreciate this,” said Angela B. Cornell, a clinical professor at Cornell Law School, who focuses on labor law. “This shift will make it a lot easier for employers to push those individuals who have been on the fence or who have been opposed.”

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Companies won’t have to worry about being sued, since it’s a government mandate and not one from the employer, she said.

Those who don’t work for federal contractors and are afraid of the vaccine can choose weekly testing instead, but many people who are simply hesitant are more likely to get immunized, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law who has studied vaccine mandates for nearly a decade.

“The testing is sufficiently burdensome that most of them would prefer just to be vaccinated,” she said.

Contributing: Associated Press

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