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Returning to the Office: Will Vaccinations Be Required?

A survey by Kaiser Health News of 15 of America's largest companies found that none are considering vaccine mandates, but most offer employee incentives. Mandates may be more of consideration after the FDA approves the vaccines.
May 27, 2021, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"A Gallup poll from last month showed that 51 percent of U.S. workers are still working from home," writes Renuka Rayasam in the POLITICO Nightly newsletter on May 25. "But as we approach summer, with half of U.S. adults fully vaccinated, the company-wide emails are rolling in: Planning our return to the office."

If Kaiser Health's survey results hold true for employers in general, workers will likely not be required to show their completed CDC Covid-19 Vaccination Record Card issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rather, they are more likely to find an employee health policy based on incentives, not mandates, which was the consensus among the 15 Fortune 500 companies surveyed by Anna Almendrala, who covers the business of health care and health care policy for Kaiser Health News.

The incentives fall into three groups, noted on the chart in the source article, along with the 15 corporations.

  • Financial: "Target is giving hourly employees up to four additional hours of pay if they get the vaccine (two hours per shot). Amazon is offering $40 a shot for hourly workers, and Kroger is giving employees $100 if they receive both doses."
  • Extra paid time-off, the most popular, and also appropriate for smaller companies "now that the Biden administration has announced tax credits for smaller companies to offer up to 80 hours of paid sick leave until Sept. 30."
  • Vaccination at the worksite, the second most popular.

Target was the only company among those surveyed that offered all three perks. While none of the representatives of the 15 companies indicated that vaccine mandates were a current consideration, some did not rule it out in the future.

Likely prerequisite for employers 

Legal and public health experts caution against any mandates before the Food and Drug Administration fully licenses the shots, which could happen this summer. The vaccines were authorized by the FDA for “emergency use” and as such employers can’t require them, some legal experts have argued.

"Pfizer/BioNTech has initiated its application to the US Food and Drug Administration for full FDA approval of its Covid-19 vaccine for people ages 16 and older" on May 7, reported CNN.

Banning vaccine verification requirements (for the public)

Vaccinations, like masks, have become politicized. Just as some states have preempted local governments from issuing mask mandates (see related links below), several Republican governors are targeting vaccinations in the same manner as well, but some have gone further by including the private sector.

A new Florida law bans businesses and government entities from requiring proof of a covid vaccination. The law builds on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order [pdf], which he signed April 2.

Senate Bill 2006: Emergency Management is not aimed at the employer/employee relationship but the business/customer relationship when it comes to vaccine verification, aka 'vaccine passports.'

"A business entity...operating in this state, may not require patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business operations in this state," states the 42-page text [pdf].

Alabama has followed suit. Gov. Kay Ivey signed Senate Bill 267 on May 24, reports Mike Cason for the Alabama Media Group. Among the prohibitions:

  • "Businesses cannot deny customers goods or services or deny entry into their places of business because of vaccination status or because of lack of documentation of vaccination status."

One frequently asked question has been: Does the new law prevent businesses from requiring their employees to receive vaccinations or show proof of vaccinations?

The answer is no. The new law does not mention employees.

It also restricts colleges from requiring vaccinations for students other than those "already required as of Jan. 1, 2021." Allyson Waller, who reported for The New York Times on the bill signing, noted that "[m]ore than 400 college campuses are requiring students to be inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine before enrolling this fall semester, with most of the mandates coming from states that voted for President Biden." 

Republican governors in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Montana and Texas have denounced the use of vaccine passports and have issued executive orders similar to Alabama’s new law. On Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia signed an executive order that prohibits state agencies from implementing a vaccine passport program or requiring proof that people have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Additional questions on vaccine mandates?

MaryBeth Musumeci and Jennifer Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation answer "key questions" on April 7 about the use of mandates by the federal government, state government and private employers.

Public opinion on such mandates is mixed, with our surveys showing about half of the public saying employers should be allowed to require vaccination for COVID-19 (51%) and 45% saying they should not be allowed to do so.

Related in Planetizen:

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Published on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 in Kaiser Health News
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