With a little over 56% of eligible Americans having received two doses of a vaccine, the U.S. lags many advanced industrialized countries as debate rages over vaccine and masking mandates.
But, ever since many of the country’s largest employers began requiring proof of vaccines this summer, workers have stepped up under the threat of losing their jobs or having to be tested on a regular basis for COVID-19.
In August, United Airlines said it would require vaccinations for its entire workforce, which includes unionized employees. On Friday, the carrier said that almost all of its workers were now vaccinated.
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United CEO Scott Kirby has been vocal about the effort and told The New York Times Saturday, “We concluded enough is enough.”
Other airlines are now following suit, with American, Alaska and JetBlue announcing Friday they would require vaccinations of their employees in keeping with an executive order that President Joe Biden signed last month making federal contractors adopt vaccination mandates. Airlines do significant business with the federal government.
Chicken giant Tyson Foods, meanwhile, said Friday some 91% of its 120,000 employees have been vaccinated. Tyson was among the first of the big-name companies that included front-line workers in its requirement. Other firms, such as Silicon Valley firms, Walt Disney and Wall Street giants had focused mainly on office workers, many of whom are working remotely, as a condition for returning to the office.
Many of these moves predated Biden’s push to get federal workers and employees of companies that do business with the government to get vaccinated. But the August order expanded those efforts to private employers with 100 or more workers.
While employers are able to use a carrot and stick approach to vaccines, polling suggests there is still a core group of people, by some estimates as much as 20% of those eligible, who have said they will not get a shot. And, many people no longer work or are in a position where they could be required to be vaccinated.
The health care industry has faced its own challenges getting workers to become vaccinated, although large systems have been leaders in the effort. North Carolina-based Novant Health drew attention last week after 175 of its employees were let go for failing to meet the company’s vaccination order. However, Novant still has been able to get 99% of its 35,000-plus employees vaccinated.
Other health workers fall under mandates that have been imposed by local authorities, such as is the case in California and New York. In New York, where about 650,000 employees at hospitals and nursing homes faced a Sept. 30 deadline to have gotten at least one vaccine dose, 92 percent were in compliance, state officials said.
And in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a vaccination requirement in early August, hospitals and other health care organizations are reporting upward of 90% of their staff or affiliated providers are vaccinated.
In some states, the policies of companies have run afoul of politicians who have blasted Biden and other federal officials for imposing mandates. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis went to court to fight the cruise ship industry over mandates for passengers and others. But companies have a long-established right to ask employees to conform with health requirements in the workplace, lawyers say.
“Companies have clear authority to mandate vaccines as a condition of employment, and also based on their duties to regulate workplace safety,” says Seema Shah, associate professor in pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School and director of research ethics at Lurie Children’s Hospital.
“There are many success stories of companies instituting vaccine mandates,” Shah adds. “Vaccine mandates have largely been highly effective, with the overwhelming majority of employees complying with the mandate. Some people may seek medical or religious exemptions. Exceptionally few people qualify for medical exemptions to COVID vaccination, however – only people who have had a major allergic reaction (anaphalaxis) to the vaccine or its components.”
Opponents to the mandates often cite that they will result in a mass exodus from the labor supply at a time when businesses are struggling to fill openings. But there is little evidence from recent job market data that has been the case.
And the White House pushed back against that narrative last week in a briefing by press secretary Jen Psaki.
“There have been – some of these companies have been much bigger, larger companies, where they have effectively implemented these mandates and requirements. And for the most part, we have not seen a mass exodus of employees,” Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. “Yes, individuals have decided not to get vaccinated and then have therefore not, no longer been employed. That’s nobody’s preference.”
Biden’s order sets a Nov. 22 deadline for federal employees to receive a final vaccine dose. The Office of Personnel Management told agencies that employees must receive their final doses of the vaccine by Nov. 8 in order for all to meet the deadline.
It is not clear what disciplinary steps the departments would take, although the guidance does offer suggestions for trying to get the employees to comply short of termination.