Number of Workers Under Vaccine Orders Levels Off

SHRM finds most employers will not require vaccines if federal mandate struck down

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer January 12, 2022
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​The percentage of U.S. workers covered by COVID-19 vaccine mandates put in place by their employers has held at 36 percent since fall 2021.Only 5 percent of workers said their employer required vaccination as a condition of employment in May 2021, before increasing to 19 percent in August, 29 percent in September and 36 percent in October, according to a tracking survey of employed adults by Gallup.The latest results, from December, show that level has stayed flat, as President Joe Biden's vaccine-or-testing mandates for private-sector and certain health care employers have been held up by the courts.  The U.S. Supreme Court's decision on whether the mandates can be implemented and enforced while facing legal challenges in lower courts is expected soon. Major provisions of the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing requirements for businesses with at least 100 workers took effect Jan. 10 amid the ongoing legal battle, but enforcement for testing unvaccinated workers has been put off until at least Feb. 9.Meanwhile, the percentage of employers encouraging vaccination has gone down as more employers are requiring the shots, according to Gallup polling. Forty-three percent of U.S. workers said their employer is encouraging vaccination but not requiring it, down from 66 percent in May and 55 percent in August. Another 22 percent said their employer has not indicated a preference about vaccination."Vaccines are foundational to getting past this pandemic," said Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at advisory firm Willis Towers Watson and an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "I understand why employers have not been aggressively pursuing mandates while all of the legal issues are in play. Some employers have been hesitant to put a vaccine mandate in place without the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standard. Others have been looking at the evidence and are not only requiring initial vaccinations but also boosters."

Several well-known companies, including Google and United Airlines, have announced "no jab, no job" policies. Citigroup, one of the country's largest financial services employers, has said its corporate workforce will have to be vaccinated by Jan. 14 or face termination by the end of the month. Branch workers were given a different timeline but face the same consequences.

"With or without the OSHA standard, many employers will create their own mandates or develop different approaches to getting their workers vaccinated," Levin-Scherz said. "Mandates work. They are dramatically less difficult to administer than testing programs."

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) released research in December 2021 that showed more than half (51 percent) of employers subject to the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing mandate are waiting to see how current legal challenges unfold before deciding on a vaccination policy. Most respondents—75 percent—said they are not likely to require vaccines or testing if the mandate is permanently struck down by the courts.

Employers cited numerous challenges to implementing the mandate, including uncertainty around the outcome of legal challenges, managing employee morale, record-keeping requirements, managing employee retention and staff time associated with implementing the requirements.

Most respondents said they are, however, preparing in case the mandates are upheld: 75 percent of employers covered by one of the vaccine mandates have begun the process of determining employees' vaccination status, according to SHRM.

"Employers must consider the business risk," Levin-Scherz said. "The problem is that unvaccinated people are more likely to get COVID and more likely to bring it into the workplace. The potential for business disruption among unvaccinated workers is higher than among a vaccinated workforce."

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Majority of Workers Support Vaccine Requirements

Although vaccination mandates have been divisive, workers are more likely to support than oppose them, Gallup found. Overall, 55 percent of U.S. workers favor vaccination requirements at work, while 35 percent are opposed. Support for employers' vaccination requirements has trended upward from 46 percent in May 2021, while the percentage of workers opposed has dipped from 39 percent since that time.

Gallup estimates that 25 percent of U.S. workers are unvaccinated against COVID-19. About 5 percent of those who are unvaccinated say they plan to get the shots, leaving 20 percent of the workforce considered to be vaccine-resistant.

Only 5 percent of all unvaccinated U.S. employees work for an employer with a vaccination mandate, Gallup found. "The relatively small proportion of unvaccinated workers employed at jobs with vaccination requirements, compared with those employed at places without them, suggests that such mandates can be an effective way to get more Americans vaccinated," said Jeffrey Jones, who oversees research and analysis for Gallup.

According to Willis Towers Watson, only 3 percent of employers with vaccination mandates have reported a spike in resignations, although 31 percent are concerned that the requirements could contribute to increased employee turnover. On the other hand, 48 percent believe that vaccine mandates could help recruit and retain employees.

"There is a very small portion of the workforce who is willing to quit over a vaccination," Levin-Scherz said. "And the likelihood would be even less if there was a nationwide vaccine mandate, as people would have fewer places to leave to."

He added that the advisory firm is recommending employers "proceed with plans to implement the mandate as well as other efforts to protect their workers. Employers can encourage vaccinations and boosters with scheduling flexibility and time off, promote regular testing, stipulate mask-wearing onsite to ensure employee health and safety—and support this with regular communications."

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