Vaccine Mandates Are Headed to an Office Near You

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Requiring Covid-19 vaccination is a thorny topic for employers. Now one of Wall Street’s biggest bosses has waded in: Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that Morgan Stanley will bar unvaccinated employees from its New York offices even as it works to bring back staff. 

The bank made the correct choice, and it’s one more offices should and likely will follow. Indeed, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. told staff on Wednesday that it's considering a mandate as well. The already powerful case for broad vaccination with safe and highly effective Covid shots will become that much stronger in the months ahead with the rapid spread of delta, an exceptionally infectious variant strain first identified in India, and the potential waning of vaccine-driven immunity.

Right now, returning to the office is relatively easy. Case counts are low and many people received their second shots relatively recently, so their protection level is high and the occasional unvaccinated colleague is less concerning. But that aura of safety and employee comfort may not last. By acting now to make vaccination a norm, companies have a better chance of keeping workers safe and in the office over the long run. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that delta now accounts for a fifth of U.S. Covid-19 cases. But variant tracking data is limited, and the real number is almost certainly higher. The emerging strain poses the greatest threat to unvaccinated individuals and those with just one shot. Still, U.K. data suggests that delta can partially evade protection and produce more “breakthrough” infection, even among fully vaccinated people. 

Delta's spread and seasonal effects will create a hospitable environment for case growth this fall and winter. That’s sufficient motivation for vaccine urgency and employer action on its ownBut some employees will have an additional reason for concern. There's evidence that protective antibodies derived from vaccines decline over time and diminish faster in older adults who received shots earlier and are at higher risk for bad outcomes. Boosters may mitigate the problem, but it's unclear when they'll be available. 

The best firewall against outbreaks and employee unease is the highest vaccination rate possible — a level it may take mandates to achieve — especially in offices where people gather in relatively close quarters. The oft-cited 70% threshold for herd immunity is not a magical switch that ends Covid, especially as variants spread. 

Some companies may be hesitant to impose mandates despite these risks because they fear lawsuits, and some states have passed rules limiting vaccine requirements. But employers, particularly those in the private sector, generally have the authority to adopt rules like mandatory vaccination to improve workplace safety and have fared well in court so far. 

A better argument against a mandate is the risk of alienating employees. That's a genuine concern. But employers should prioritize the safety and comfort of the responsible majority of their employees over those willing to put others at risk, often because of fringe political views or misinformation. 

A softer mandate such as Morgan Stanley’s office-specific rule is a smart middle ground for many businesses compared with the threat of outright termination. The policy allows a choice, reducing legal risk and employee pushback while still maintaining a safer environment and creating significant pressure to get vaccinated. It's going to be tough to be the last person in every meeting who's dialing in from home. 

Accommodation is needed for people who can't get vaccines for health reasons. That's a short list, however. The only people the CDC suggests should generally avoid Covid vaccines are those with severe allergies to specific ingredients. The agency acknowledges that less is known about Covid vaccine safety for people with autoimmune conditions, but doesn't recommend against vaccination in those groups. Exemptions should be narrow to prevent exploitation.

Companies can make sure office mandates don't keep holdouts at home by offering resources and a few carrots to go along with the stick. Employers should offer assistance with appointments, allow for time off to get the shot and weather any side effects and provide information or counseling for those who remain resistant. Incentives tied to vaccination and being present at the office also couldn’t hurt.  

Mandates probably won’t be popular at Morgan Stanley or anywhere else. But it’s the right thing to do. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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