At the beginning of 2021, U.S. workers all over the country welcomed the first signs of COVID-19 vaccines. As it became more available, companies started to make vaccination a requirement for working in-office as part of an effort to return to normalcy. For example, American Express required full vaccinations for in-person workers. However, this year might see our workforce saying goodbye to vaccine mandates altogether.
Back in November, American Express was added to the list of companies ending their COVID-19 vaccine office mandates. This was not only for its U.S. offices, but also for locations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. With this growing wave of dropped mandates, we don’t blame you for wondering if in-office vaccine mandates will end.
As vaccines became more readily available throughout the country in 2021, the conversation about work vaccine mandates heated up. In early November of that year, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced an emergency temporary COVID standard about safety in the workplace, stating that employers with more than 100 employees “must develop, implement and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy,” unless they adopt a policy requiring employees to choose to either be vaccinated or undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work. Although the DOL intended that the measure protect U.S. workers, the standard was met with backlash.
The Supreme Court blocked most of the policy soon after it went into effect, though it allowed the mandate to stand for medical facilities that take Medicare or Medicaid payments. The Court argued that regulating public health more broadly to private businesses was outside of the scope of OSHA, whose mandate would have required 84 million Americans to be vaccinated.
The decision to implement mandates fell to the state level, and, in some cases, such as in New York City, the municipal level. The bottom line is that private companies decided their own policies as the pandemic continued.
Private companies have been navigating COVID-19 precautions amid the complexity of mandates, vaccines and testing. Even before the announced standard, entrenched big companies took stances on how to handle COVID-19 and vaccinations.
Implementation depended on how the company’s workforce operated. Companies that required vaccination prior to returning to office included Google, Facebook, Morgan Stanley, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Washington Post. Companies that had hybrid workforces, with some employees working in the office and some in the field, took that model into consideration when they implemented their policies. For example, Walmart, Lyft and Uber required vaccinations for those working in-office, but had different standards for drivers and warehouse workers.
Some companies used financial tactics to encourage employees to get vaccinated. Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat processors in the U.S., announced in August 2021 that, in addition to requiring its employees to get vaccinated, it would also give $200 to vaccinated front-line team members. Delta Airlines, a company with employees working directly with customers, made an adjustment to their employer-provided health insurance to encourage vaccinations. If an employee of Delta was unvaccinated, Delta added an extra $200 to their monthly premiums; this policy started in November 2021 and ended in April 2022.
In May 2022, a poll conducted by Littler Mendelson P.C showed roughly 40 percent of employers had some sort of COVID-19 vaccine or regular testing measure in place, about double the percentage from Littler’s August 2021 survey in which organizations either had mandated vaccinations or were about to implement them.
The latest poll showed that 41 percent of employers had mandates, 56 percent did not (and would only initiate one if legally required), 2 percent were unsure and 1 percent indicated that they planned to create a policy soon. For the companies that did implement a vaccine mandate, some fell under what the study refers to as a “soft vaccine mandate,” which means that workers must either vaccinate or wear a mask and undergo regular testing. The benefit of this middle ground gave employers an option that could possibly avoid mass terminations.
COVID-19 vaccine mandates affect employers because (regardless of implementation or opposition), they can lose employees.
A lack of vaccine mandate may cause cautious employees to feel uncomfortable returning to in-person work, prompting them to look elsewhere for employment. However, implementing a vaccination policy can encourage employees unwilling to get the vaccine to look for a less-hardline workplace. Either of these alternatives can impact a business’s bottom line, since recruitment is already difficult and incurs the cost of hiring new employees.
These considerations explain the popularity of a soft vaccine mandate, which offers another option but can increase employer costs. State laws vary on COVID-19 policy implementation, but in most cases, the burden falls on the employer. Continual COVID-19 testing and screening, which may lead to additional sick days and paid time off so employees can recover and avoid spreading sickness to others, can impact a business’s profit margin.
Just as employers have been affected by the vaccine mandates, employees are impacted as well. As mentioned earlier, a vaccine mandate helps a business create an environment that employees are comfortable to work in. However, a vaccine mandate may also push employees against vaccination to leave and seek different employment, while the absence of a mandate can cause COVID-cautious employees to leave.
In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, Americans were split about employers that require a vaccine mandate for in-person work, with 48 percent for mandates and 46 percent against. Sixty-four percent believed healthcare workers should have a vaccination requirement and, in another poll, 69 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 13 and 29 supported vaccine mandates for in-person learning or work.
Vaccination mandates, or the lack thereof, bring up strong feelings for employees. For example, in a 2021 survey conducted by Seyfarth at Work, 37 percent of companies polled reported that their vaccinated staff was angry and frustrated at the transmission risk posed by unvaccinated workers. Such workers were also concerned about possibly covering for unvaccinated colleagues who became ill. In the same survey, 21 percent of companies reported that unvaccinated workers complained about being judged for their stance as well as the inconvenience of undergoing regular testing.
As COVID becomes normalized, companies are beginning to push for workers to return to the office (RTO). Some businesses, such as Apple, pushed for an RTO with at least three days per week in-office as of September 2022. Other companies, like Twitter, want employees to be in the office full-time, an edict that led many employees to resign.
Companies adjusted their vaccine mandates throughout 2022. While some companies choose to keep vaccination requirements in place, others began to repeal them as soon as possible. Back in February, Adidas stated that employees no longer need to be vaccinated. In March, JPMorgan Chase announced that they would employ unvaccinated individuals. In June, Cisco lifted their vaccination requirement for employees. In November, Tyson Foods eliminated its COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
Some workplaces also seek to undo the effects of these mandates. For example, in October, a New York state judge ruled that sanitation workers fired for not getting vaccinated should get their jobs back, with an additional ruling that they should be given retroactive pay. This decision is currently being appealed by the city of New York.
Though the workforce seems to be moving forward without the COVID-19 measures it once had, the virus has not gone away. Hospitalizations are on the rise for older adults, and the combination of the flu and other respiratory diseases, in addition to COVID-19, means that U.S. hospitals are filling up again. The fallout of COVID-19 on the labor market also continues, especially with the possibility of long COVID hurting employees’ ability to work as well as they did pre-infection. It will be critical for businesses to continue watching for COVID-19’s impact as precautions roll back, and how that affects the hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers.