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As COVID-19 Vaccine Nears, Employers Consider Making It Mandatory


Encourage or require - that is a dilemma many employers are facing as a COVID-19 vaccine comes closer to reality. A quarter million people in the U.S. have died from COVID. Once there's a shot that can prevent illness, should it be mandatory in the workplace? NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Only a couple of months into the pandemic, Holly Smith had made up her mind. Her restaurant, Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Wash., would not reopen to diners until there was a COVID-19 vaccine. She's already told her staff, you are going to get vaccinated.

HOLLY SMITH: Some of my young millennials are like, so I'm taking this as a directive, like as a mandate. Is that how you mean it? And it's like, it's a scary thing, you know? Like, yeah. Yes, yes.

HSU: Smith had 28 employees before the pandemic. She's had to lay off all but five. Her fine dining spot has become a takeout-only business. Even with a much smaller staff, Smith is serious about safety. She requires her workers to get tested if they go on vacation with people outside their bubble or if they're showing any sign of illness.

SMITH: I believe in civil liberties and all those different things, but, you know, we have people who live with their parents. We have people who live with a husband who has diabetes.

HSU: The staff have to be healthy and safe before you can move forward, she says.

SMITH: You know, if we're vaccinated, I think I can move out in the world and be responsible for these 28 or 30 people, plus all the people coming in.

HSU: Now, if you're wondering, can she actually do this? Can she require her workers to get vaccinated? - the answer appears to be yes. But her workers also have the right to request exemptions. Under federal law, someone could say, I have a medical or religious reason I can't be vaccinated, and companies must try to provide accommodations.

JOHNNY TAYLOR JR: It's incredibly hard to manage a mandate.

HSU: Johnny Taylor Jr. is president of the Society for Human Resource Management. He says each request must be evaluated on its own merits. Now, imagine if there were hundreds of them. A recent poll found 4 in 10 Americans don't want the vaccine, though that polling was done before anyone knew how well the vaccines would work.

TAYLOR: So this is a true headache for HR professionals.

HSU: That's why you're likely to see many companies strongly encourage the vaccine but stop short of mandating it. Take, for example, the pork producer Smithfield. The company told NPR they're not anticipating a firm mandate, but they want to offer the vaccine on site. Even with all the headaches, Taylor thinks many employers will go for the mandate. After all, they have an obligation to get rid of any known hazards in the workplace, like COVID.

TAYLOR: It's real and it's devastating, so I think the dynamic changes. Employers are actually going to position this as, I need to do this - full stop.

HSU: Now, there are some workplaces that already mandate the flu vaccine; most commonly hospitals. Dr. James McDeavitt is dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He says the annual flu shot is required for some 14,000 people - doctors, nurses, med students.

JAMES MCDEAVITT: Even the clerks that are sitting in a computer that don't see live patients.

HSU: It's the right thing to do for society, he says. If you claim an exemption, you have to wear a mask. Now, with a COVID vaccine, Baylor is not going to make it mandatory until they can actually get enough supply to cover everyone and until it's been deemed safe, not just by the FDA, McDeavitt says, but by his own colleagues. Johnny Taylor Jr. says whatever companies decide, there are likely to be challenges. And so...

TAYLOR: Congress and state legislators are going to have to think about how to offer some protection on both sides.

HSU: Legal protection for companies that mandate the vaccine in case someone has a bad reaction, even though you will have to sign a waiver before you get the shot.

TAYLOR: They've also got to protect the employers who decide not to make it a mandate and then who are sued by employees who contract it.

HSU: Taylor has been meeting with federal employment officials, telling them employers want to do the right thing, but they're in a tough spot, and they're going to need help getting through this.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.