Employers Mandating Vaccinations on the Horizon?

December 3, 2020

Employers mandating vaccinations brings relief to some while striking fear in others. Here is what could come with employment and vaccines.

Image with a green sign (with the word "Vaccine") in front of a blue sky with white clouds.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate, that is the question.  Or, it has been the question posed by many for a very long time.  In most cases, the choice whether to vaccinate or not has been just that—a choice.  There were few things that one could not partake in for having foregone vaccinations.  The concept of herd immunity has provided a level of protection that offsets the risk of infection.  Then, coronavirus came along, and everything changed.  First, there was no vaccine to protect against infection.  Second, should pharmaceutical companies successfully develop a vaccine, who would be willing to volunteer for such a new drug?  Third, could anyone actually mandate people to get the vaccine?  Specifically, could employers mandate employees to get vaccinated?

So, with a potential vaccine in the works, lets take a peek at how vaccinations are becoming something of an HR issue.  Learn what employers can and can’t refuse where vaccinations are concerned.

Why the fuss about vaccines?

Woman with a confused face and hands in "I don't know" gesture.
Photo by Robin Higgins

Now, what’s all the fuss about vaccinations?  Well, living in a free country, citizens understandably enjoy certain liberties, especially where their bodies are concerned.  However, there still exists that delicate balance of determining when an individual freedom becomes harmful to the general population. 

Think about it this way:  while adults of legal age have the freedom to consume alcohol, it is illegal to operate machinery thereafter.  So, no one stops people from deciding for themselves to consume alcohol, even if it could be harmful to their bodies.  However, when consuming alcohol could be harmful to others if the person drinking gets behind the wheel or operates a machine at work, then there’s a problem and the authorities will step in.

With that in mind, let’s identify some reasons why some choose to vaccinate and others opt out.

Pros of Getting Vaccinated

Based on scientific research, vaccines are an effective way to keep deadly illnesses under control.  Under normal circumstances, pharma companies develop and test vaccines for a long period of time before they begin distributing to the general population.  While there has been some concern about side effects, the medical community agrees they are few.  Furthermore, most people believe the benefits far outweigh the risks.  Additionally, distributing the vaccine can be accomplished quickly, and the cost is relatively low to the recipient.

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Cons of Getting Vaccinated

Photo of a person covering her face with her hands.

Much of the controversy surrounding vaccines revolves around their safety.  People who oppose vaccinations are often concerned about the negative issues they could experience due to a bad batch or unknown long-term effects.  Furthermore, there is a level of distrust of pharmaceutical companies.  Besides this, some people doubt vaccines are even necessary at all.  Specifically, they feel the diseases vaccines are meant to prevent are relatively low-risk, or at least easy to treat.  Then there are other groups of people who are terrified of needles, or who simply can’t afford the cost of the injection.

Nevertheless, the groups of people are small who decide not to get vaccinated, and therefore are protected by herd immunity.

Employer Requirements for Employment

Now, this is where things get a little tricky, because we know that HIPAA protects certain aspects of employee medical information.  So, employers may not request a candidate’s medical history before hiring, or after they are hired, without the worker’s permission.  Still, there are certain issues regarding health that an employer can mandate as terms of employment.  For example, employers can mandate a drug test.  If employees refuse to participate in a drug test, their employer can refuse to hire them.  State law determines their fate for refusing a drug test after hire.

Whatever someone’s stance on vaccinations, this is one area where employers may legally decide not to make a hire, since the U.S. is an at-will employment nation.  Think about it in terms of the alcohol analogy.  Workers have the right to refuse vaccinations, however, employers also have the right to deny employment out of concern for the health and safety of employees. 

Still, employers will have to contend with certain loopholes when it comes to mandating vaccinations.  For example, employees with certain disabilities could be exempt from vaccinations.  Additionally, employee religious beliefs could keep employer mandates at bay.  On the flipside, employees in certain sectors of the workforce could have a harder time dodging vaccinations.  For example, healthcare workers, who are frequently exposed to contagious illnesses, might have to rethink their career if they are anti-vaccine or afraid of needles.

Be not afraid of employers mandating vaccinations!

Nevertheless, employees shouldn’t worry.  In other words, there’s no need for anyone to run and convert to a different religion in order to avoid getting a COVID vaccination.  It is unlikely that employers will actually try to force vaccines on employees.  Instead, they will likely strongly encourage them to do so.  Many employees will gladly get vaccinated, and those who don’t will have a good chance of being protected by herd immunity.  In theory, many of the same people who don’t opt for traditional immunizations will also be the people who would forego new vaccinations. 

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Also, remember that as we embark on this crash course of virtual employment, the decision not to vaccinate might not eliminate employees from a job altogether. Instead, it could land them in a virtual role, as opposed to an in-person position.

Could employers really begin mandating vaccinations?

In a word, yes, it is entirely possible that employers could begin mandating vaccinations as terms of employment.  This is similar to the law permitting employers to require drug tests as terms of employment.  Specifically, employers require drug tests to ensure the safety of all workers.  While employees have rights, employers do, as well. 

However, it is more likely that employers will strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated, instead of taking on a “do or die” approach.  After all, good employers know that employees are happier and more productive when they don’t feel pressure or intimidation to do something they fear or don’t believe in.  Furthermore, those who choose to forego vaccination will likely be protected by herd immunity.  Thus, there is a pretty good chance many people will opt into the vaccination, which will help protect the group as a whole while in the workplace.

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