All Companies Should Require Vaccines for Workers Now
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Corporate America has ample evidence of Covid-19’s fury. New cases, hospitalizations and daily death tolls have surged as the delta variant barrels across workplaces and communities. The emergence of an even more contagious and lethal mutation of the virus is possible, too.
Yet most business leaders have spent weeks pondering whether to require employees to get vaccinated — even though data and reality have already shown that vaccines are the only way to corral the pandemic in a humane and disciplined fashion. Millions of doses of unused vaccine in the U.S. are about to expire while the rest of the world goes wanting. People’s livelihoods and well-being — as well as the health of the broader economy — are at stake.
In other words, the logic of mandates is abundantly clear.
This is easy for me to recommend, I know. I don’t sit atop a company, overseeing scores of employees — much less tens or hundreds of thousands scattered across the globe with different responsibilities and needs. I don’t have to juggle the complexities that arise when employees’ personal health decisions collide with public health priorities. I won’t become the target of Tucker Carlson’s ire, libertarian outrage, MAGA-trolling or workers’ backlash. I manage myself.
But it can be done. United Airlines Inc. is now requiring all of its employees to be vaccinated. CNN recently fired three employees who came to work unvaccinated. Consider the Pentagon, which has about 3 million workers, making it the world’s largest employer. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly plans to announce Friday that all active-duty troops will have to get vaccinated. Although the military is part of that lumbering, bureaucratic government the private sector likes to disdain, it has moved speedily compared with most companies. And as well it should have. The military is meant to safeguard national security, and continuing to allow soldiers and sailors to become human petri dishes for Covid-19 would have undermined that duty.
Companies have duties, too. Safeguarding and growing the economy are a couple, as is operating responsibly and with vigilance wherever they’re located. In that context, a vaccine mandate is a no-brainer, even with all the complex challenges it entails.
The law backs up companies in most situations should litigation arise. Nonunion employers’ relationship with their workers is “at will” in almost every state, and they have the right to impose vaccine mandates. Once the Food and Drug Administration grants full regulatory approval for Covid-19 vaccines and they are no longer considered emergency products, employers’ positions will only be stronger.
Unionized shops have to negotiate with their unions before ordering a mandate. The Americans with Disabilities Act permits some workers to request a vaccine exemption, and workers with compromised immune systems can also rebuff a mandate. The Civil Rights Act might allow employees to claim religious exemptions from mandates, but employers are permitted to deny such accommodations if they impose undue burdens.
Most companies are probably not hesitating to mandate vaccinations because they’re worried about being sued, of course. They have genuine concerns that they’ll alienate their workforces and possibly lose valuable employees in a tight labor market. They’re also undoubtedly attuned to the bonkers politicization of vaccinations, with a vocal segment of Americans routinely whining that government overreach is trampling their freedoms and individualism.
Those are all tricky dynamics to navigate. Still, many institutions and companies have already tried, notably universities and health-care providers. Small businesses have also taken a lead in requiring vaccinations, and more are reportedly considering doing so. Large law firms have mandated vaccinations as have many prominent corporations.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Lyft Inc., Twitter Inc., Microsoft Corp., Walt Disney Co., Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. have mandates for employees working at company sites, but apparently not if they are working from home. The New York Times Co. and Washington Post Co. also have mandates. (My employer, Bloomberg LP, which has supported employees with generous health benefits during the pandemic, does not have a mandate.)
Tyson Foods Inc. appears to have a more far-reaching mandate in place, covering its entire workforce. Walmart Inc., the largest U.S. private-sector employer with about 2.3 million workers, requires managers, corporate associates and new employees to be vaccinated but not its vast retail workforce. Amazon.com Inc., the second-largest U.S. private-sector employer with about 1.3 million employees, doesn’t require vaccinations, largely because of concerns its workers will quit.
Amazon is emblematic of the divide that still exists among businesses about requiring vaccines, even while Covid-19 continues to rage and mutate. Hesitation and caution are understandable. But the delta variant has moved more quickly than business leaders, unfortunately. The unvaccinated are putting the vaccinated at risk and their personal choices are trumping the common good. Corporate America can make a huge difference by requiring employees to be vaccinated. It should start now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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