An Employer's Perspective on COVID-19 Vaccinations

The majority of U.S. employers are uncertain about whether to require that employees receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

By Alexander Alonso March 3, 2021
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​Like most Americans, you probably breathed a sigh of relief late last year when you heard the news that coronavirus vaccines would be made available to the public. Now, HR professionals hold the answers to numerous questions, including who is eligible to receive vaccinations and what happens next. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but the next steps regarding vaccinations, like many other matters in the COVID-19 era, depend on our response as business leaders.

Employers carry a great burden regarding vaccinations because they know that workplace policies will undoubtedly impact the lives of their workers. What should employers do to ensure that their businesses are sustainable and their employees are safe? Should they require workers to receive a COVID-19 vaccination?

Data from a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) omnibus survey indicates that the majority of U.S.-based employers are grappling with this very issue: 55 percent said they were uncertain about whether to require or mandate vaccinations for employees, but 81 percent said they will strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated.

Why such a discrepancy? Employers cite uncertainty about their ability to mandate vaccinations and a belief that vaccinations are not needed to ensure business sustainability. This is quite telling. For the last decade, organizations have taken a key role in promoting employee wellness, yet the impact of wellness initiatives remains limited.

Even with uncertainty among employers, it’s important to note one key statistic from SHRM’s research: 76 percent of working Americans would accept a vaccine mandate from their employer. In other words, the vast majority of U.S. workers indicated a willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccination if required by their employer.

By extension, workers see employers as factors in their decision-making regarding wellness. What employers do and say matters more than ever because those actions and statements affect individuals beyond their professional lives.

As we think about the future of employment, this data has implications regarding a recurring employment topic. For the last five years, the gig economy has dominated many discussions about the future of work and a healthy debate has emerged around what employment means and what types of benefits employees, contingent or not, expect. Are gig workers entitled to the same benefits as full-time employees? Are organizations responsible for gig workers’ well-being to the same extent as they are for full-time staff members’?

The COVID-19 era has reframed much of our thinking. At the end of 2019, one truth accepted by almost all experts was that the expansion of the gig economy was as inevitable as Thanos, the Marvel Comics mad titan, being hell-bent on changing existence. COVID-19 has challenged our thinking and reinforced one new truism: Employers have a responsibility to workers of all types. More importantly, those same workers care more than ever about what their employers do for them.

Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

I pose this timely follow-up question: “What is the price of responsibility?” In an employer’s case, I propose that price is ensuring great wellness beyond the reach of employment, an outcome we can all aspire to achieve in the COVID-19 era.  

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Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer for SHRM.

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