: Just 0.5% of U.S. companies mandate COVID-19 vaccination for all employees

United States

Employers in the U.S. may be allowed to require workers to take a COVID-19 vaccine, but a new survey suggests most aren’t going the mandatory route just yet.

Just 0.5% of companies currently mandate coronavirus vaccination for all employees, and only 6% plan to mandate it for all workers once vaccines are readily available and/or fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to the survey of 1,802 C-suite executives, HR professionals and in-house lawyers from a range of industries conducted by the employment-law firm Littler.

Another 3% said they plan to mandate vaccination only for certain workers, such as those in customer-facing roles.

But by and large, companies either came out against vaccine mandates or said they were undecided: 48% said they would not require employees to get vaccinated, and 43% said they were unsure and still weighing the possibility.

“There clearly appears to be a general consensus out there,” Barry Hartstein, who leads Littler’s COVID-19 vaccination working group and also led the survey analysis, told MarketWatch.

So with a mass-vaccination campaign underway to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19, what steps do employers plan to take in order to encourage vaccinations once the shots are widely available?

An overwhelming 87% said they would provide employees with information on the benefits of vaccination and how to get their shots. Thirty-seven percent said they would offer vaccine administration at their facility to make it more convenient, and 33% said they would offer paid time off for purposes like receiving the vaccine or recovering from any side effects.

Just 12% said they planned to bar unvaccinated employees from certain activities, such as travel or interaction with colleagues or customers; 11% said they would give cash rewards to vaccinated workers. And six percent said they didn’t plan to encourage employee vaccination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance in December suggesting that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their workers, as long as employees don’t have a disability or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from getting vaccinated.

That guidance confirmed speculation from employment-law experts who spoke with MarketWatch in October. But those experts also predicted that companies would be more likely to promote the benefits of vaccination and make it easier for employees to get their shots, seeking to steer clear of potential conflict or litigation.

Employers’ top concerns about a COVID-19 vaccine mandate were resistance from employees who weren’t in a protected category, but refused to get vaccinated or generally opposed vaccination (79%) and the impact of a mandate on morale or the company culture (67%).

Corporations including Facebook FB, +0.04% and Discover Financial Services DFS, +1.02% told the Wall Street Journal in December that they planned to urge workers to get vaccinated but avoid a mandate. Other employers told the paper they planned to financially incentivize vaccinations and/or restrict unvaccinated employees’ access to certain events and activities.

In the Littler survey, employers’ top concerns about a COVID-19 vaccine mandate were resistance from employees who weren’t in a protected category, but refused to get vaccinated or generally opposed vaccination (79%) and the impact of a mandate on morale or the company culture (67%).

Additional concerns included legal liability over possible adverse vaccine reactions (64%); the effectiveness of a mandate given that many groups could be exempt (57%); the administrative challenges of a mandate (47%); uncertainty about how well vaccines would limit coronavirus spread, given lack of clarity about whether vaccinated individuals can still spread the virus (22%); and the possible need to bargain with union representatives (15%).

Hartstein says he finds it interesting that employers’ top two concerns related to employees’ personal perspectives, rather than liability or legal concerns. 

There may be several factors at play, he added, including limited access to vaccines right now; their current emergency-use authorization (a less-stringent clearance than full FDA approval that’s being used to speed up use of coronavirus treatments and vaccines); potential allergic reactions, which have occurred in a small share of vaccine recipients; groups that were excluded from vaccine trials, such as pregnant people; and potential religious and disability-related exceptions from an EEOC perspective.

“Our general recommendation has been to encourage it. Some employers have considered incentives,” Hartstein said. “But having it mandatory at this point is probably, at a minimum, premature.”

The EEOC’s guidance, however, leaves the door open for employers to go beyond mere persuasion, Rutgers Law School professor Sahar Aziz previously told MarketWatch. Employers can choose to mandate vaccination, aside from certain exemptions, if a voluntary program doesn’t achieve the desired level of compliance, she said. “This guidance allows them to use the stick, not just the carrot,” Aziz said.

Many states already require employees in health-care settings to get vaccinated against the flu and other diseases, as do many health-care facilities.

This survey yielded a higher-than-usual response rate compared to similar surveys conducted by the law firm, Hartstein noted — suggesting “there’s an enormous amount of interest” in this topic among employers.

“They responded because they want to know how people feel about it themselves,” he said. “Everyone wants to know what the person next door is doing.”