Denying vaccine hero

Employers Are Bracing for Vaccine Mandate Backlash

Almost four in 10 business leaders (38%) expect their organizations to lose employees as a result of implementing the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate

One in five say that requiring vaccinations will repel potential new hires, and 27% anticipate greater divisiveness in their workplaces.

“I’m actually surprised that those numbers aren’t even higher,” said i4cp CEO Kevin Oakes of the findings. “We see loss of employees (and potential candidates) as realistic and expected because most companies have workers who choose not to be vaccinated. It’s only logical that organizations will lose some of those employees, especially in companies where vaccination is a condition of employment. From a culture perspective, organizations will need to pay close attention to effects this may have on workforce psyche and engagement long term.”

September’s “Getting Employees Vaccinated” survey—the latest in an Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) series tracking pandemic-related trends—revealed  significant expected impacts to the workforce as a result of the announced mandate. 

Expected workforce effects from the vaccine mandates chart

In contrast to the 38% of survey respondents who anticipate losing employees because of mandated vaccinations, 14% said they expected to retain employees. And while 19% say that mandates will logically repel some job candidates, 11% predict the requirements will help attract new talent. Forty percent of survey participants said that it’s simply too soon to gauge the impact of the mandate on their organizations.

For some companies (19%) the governmental mandate takes the pressure off organizational decision-makers who may have wanted to require vaccines, but struggled with making the call.

Evolving policies reflect a shift from encouraging toward requiring vaccinations

Few (20% of survey respondents) said their organizations didn’t require vaccinations prior to the Biden administration mandate, but will do so now—joining the 23% who said their firms already required vaccinations. Thirty-five percent of participants said it is too soon to tell how the mandate will affect their organizations.

Employer stance on vaccinations has evolved during 2021; through June of this year, i4cp’s research consistently found employers acknowledging reluctance to set policies that require vaccinations for their workers—electing to encourage instead.

In January, 35% of leaders told us that their policies encouraged, but didn’t require vaccinations, with just 17% saying they required or planned to require employees—regardless of work location—to get vaccinations. By June, the number of organizations that were encouraging vaccination had risen to 73%, but still just one in 10 required vaccinations of all employees.

But the Delta variant quickly changed opinions. In September, 20% of respondents say that their policies require all employees to provide proof of vaccinations. Another 9% plan to do so, and 29% say that they’re considering requiring proof. At 57%, the proportion of organizations choosing encouragement over requirement at present remains strong, though markedly lower than levels earlier in the year.

More than half (56%) of the 534 business leaders in global, multinational, and national organizations who responded to the latest survey reported that at least half of their employees are fully vaccinated, and 33% put the number at more than 75% of their workforces.

Some employers are watching and waiting before they act

Write-in responses to the survey confirm that many leaders are waiting for further details on the mandate. While some are preparing to comply, others are biding their time and watching legal actions play out.

Assuming the mandate is upheld—and that organizations will continue with their own self-imposed mandates—questions from HR and other business functions are looming on appropriate strategies for execution. Three are receiving widespread attention already:

Tracking

One compelling question concerns how employers can confirm that workers have received vaccinations. The current research found that an official COVID-19 vaccination record from a healthcare provider, vaccination site, or other recognized source has become the favored verification method.

How does your organization track vaccination status

As the graph indicates, current data reflects significant changes in several areas when compared with figures from mid-year: The June survey found 25% of respondents not planning to track employee vaccination information, 20% using the honor system, 21% making vaccination information voluntary, and 18% requiring an official record.

Testing

The Biden administration directive calls for unvaccinated workers to produce negative COVID-19 test results on a weekly (at least) basis in order to be admitted to workplaces. Further, many who responded to the i4cp survey reported that their organizations already require employees and others (vendors, customers, suppliers, etc.) who are unvaccinated to produce negative test results before entering an onsite location.

The question on leaders’ minds: Who will pay for testing?

The largest percentage of survey participants—44%—say they haven’t decided yet. Sixteen percent plan to cover all testing costs for employees, and 7% say they’ll cover costs for employees with approved exemptions only. Nine percent say that unvaccinated employees will bear the cost themselves.

Workplace safety

Finally, if vaccinated and unvaccinated employees are to be present in the same workplaces, what steps should employers take to ensure that their people are safe?

The survey asked about nine possible strategies; three responses stood out:

  • Two-thirds of participants (68%) say they already have or plan to set up all workplaces to facilitate social distancing;
  • almost the same number—65%—are choosing to provide remote work options for employees whose jobs don’t require their presence onsite;
  • and 60% say that regardless of vaccination status, their employees must wear masks while in organizational workplaces.

While fewer than 10% of respondents say that their organizations are adapting their workplaces to separate vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, other safety strategies include using hoteling to manage building occupancy levels, requiring only unvaccinated employees to wear masks, and requiring regular testing of unvaccinated employees who want to work onsite.

i4cp continues to monitor the evolving issue of vaccinations for employees and provide the latest information for employers. We encourage all leaders to visit our publicly available Employer Resource Center and register there to attend i4cp’s Getting Hybrid Work Right virtual meeting series (also open to the public).

Preliminary data from the September “Getting Employees Vaccinated” survey is available on the i4cp website, and another article will be published soon to cover findings on vaccination incentives for employees, organizational communication strategies, and what companies are doing with workers who refuse vaccinations.

Carol Morrison is an i4cp senior research analyst