Survey Shows Companies Reconsidering Vaccine Mandates as Delta Surges

We may not be at a tipping point yet, but there has definitely been a shift in employer attitudes toward vaccine mandates. We just closed a survey on this topic, and of the 372 US employers responding, 14% require (or plan to require) all employees returning to their worksites to be vaccinated, with another 15% requiring vaccinations for certain job functions such as business travel or customer contact. Just three months ago, in a survey of 425 employers that closed in May, only 3% of respondents planned to require employees to be vaccinated and only 8% were even considering it.

What’s driving the change in attitude? The most important factor may be the rapid spread of infections caused by the Delta variant, which has dashed hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic would soon be effectively over in the US. In addition, the Biden administration, frustrated by the slowdown in voluntary vaccinations, is actively encouraging employers to impose mandates and setting an example by requiring federal workers to either get vaccinated or submit to regular testing. California recently announced that all state employees and healthcare workers must be vaccinated, and New York and Washington are following with similar mandates. And President Biden recently stated that long COVID could be considered a disability under law, which employers may see as yet another reason to get their people vaccinated sooner rather than later.

Return to worksite considerations

But the new openness to vaccine mandates also stems from practical considerations as employers seek to return employees to offices and other worksites. The survey found that the majority of employers – 59% – plan to return employees to their worksites by the end of September, if they are not back already. An additional 18% expect most employees to be back by the end of the year. But rising infection rates makes it more difficult to persuade employees that it’s safe to come back – especially if some employees remain unvaccinated. When asked what was preventing employees from returning to their worksites, 40% indicate that employees continue to express concerns about health and safety.

Incentives vs. mandates

Employers have tried communication campaigns and offered various “carrots” to encourage the vaccine-hesitant to take the plunge. One in ten of survey respondents say they offer employees cash or a gift card as an incentive to get vaccinated (little changed from 7% of respondents in our May survey); an additional 16% offer extra PTO as an incentive. With new urgency brought on by the Delta variant and return to worksite plans, however, employers seem increasingly willing to consider stronger measures, such as a health plan premium surcharge for the unvaccinated – or a mandate.

Certainly, a vaccine mandate, although legal, raises administrative and compliance issues, and risks alienating some employees in the midst of a labor shortage. But for some employers, anyway, the cons of a vaccine mandate have become less daunting than the cons of returning a mixed population to the worksite.

Masking at the worksite and other safety protocols

Addressing worksite safety is more complex with a mixed population of vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. Most respondents will require masks at the worksite, but only about a fourth will require all employees regardless of vaccination status to wear masks. More commonly, employers will require only the unvaccinated to be masked, with 36% of respondents relying on voluntary disclosure (“honor system”) and 21% requiring proof of vaccination in some verifiable form. Only 11% will not require any employees to be masked. 

About half of respondents (54%) still have rules in place to enforce social distancing (down from 76% in our May survey), and 35% are limiting the number of employees onsite at a given time (down from 63%). Just under a third (30%) require employees to use a daily symptom checker. A small number of employers – 8% – either perform or require COVID-19 testing for some or all asymptomatic employees, although some of those (3%) only require testing for unvaccinated workers.

Vaccine resistance may be ebbing

Even as employer attitudes are shifting, so are the public’s. A combination of time and the Delta variant seems to be softening opposition to the vaccine, and one recent poll found that about a quarter of those who are still unvaccinated say they would get vaccinated if their employers required it. In addition, reliable sources speculate that the Pfizer vaccine will receive full FDA approval by the end of August, which could ease concerns among the vaccine-hesitant – and should result in more mandates across the public and private sectors.

Whether all of this means the time is right for your organization to mandate the vaccine will take careful consideration. But while such a move would have made you an outlier back in May, today those that decide to mandate won’t be alone.

Beth Umland
by Beth Umland

Director of Research, Health, Mercer

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