It's the latest COVID conundrum. Either choice carries risk, including potential legal exposure.
While the public anxiously awaits widespread availability of coronavirus vaccines, employers view the rollout with some trepidation.
The arrival of vaccines presents companies with a thorny dilemma: whether or not to require that employees get vaccinated before returning to the workplace.
Either choice carries risk. While a mandate could help companies more quickly resume business as usual, it also could expose them to lawsuits from employees who object to the vaccine for various reasons or those who have adverse reactions to the shot. On the other hand, employers that don't have a mandate could be liable in the case of a workplace outbreak.
Companies aren't keen to discuss the issue; few responded to inquiries from Crain's. Those that did say they aren't requiring vaccinations. Even companies involved in the vaccine rollout are holding off on mandates, at least for now.
"We will offer COVID-19 vaccines to pharmacy and store team members as they become eligible to receive the vaccine, in accordance with federal, state and CDC guidance," a Walgreens spokeswoman said. "We will not require team members to get vaccinated at this time."
A big concern for companies is the lack of long-term data on potential side effects of a vaccine that was okayed in record time under the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's "emergency use authorization" process.
"While under Emergency Use Authorization, the vaccine remains voluntary," said a spokeswoman for Amita Health, which operates 19 Chicago-area hospitals.
If hospital workers aren't required to get the vaccine, that could be enough to deter employers in other industries, says Michael LeRoy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"We're in uncharted territory," LeRoy said.
Still, Brian Weinthal, a labor attorney in Chicago, says he's fielded a dozen or so calls from companies—most of which are in manufacturing—asking if they can require workers to get vaccinated. The answer is yes, with the exception of workers who can't get the shots due to disabilities or religious beliefs, Weinthal said. Whether employers should impose a mandate is another story.
"From a business continuity standpoint," it makes sense to require that workers get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, said Dr. David Zieg, a partner and clinical services leader at the Mercer consulting firm. In addition to protecting workers from getting sick, vaccination also shields employers from potentially having to cover medical costs associated with serious cases of the virus.
"But the vaccine was moved through (the federal authorization process) very quickly, and there's a lot of individual skepticism," Zieg added, noting that a mandate could plunge companies into the political controversy surrounding the vaccine and spark resentment among employees who belong to ethnic groups that have expressed serious qualms about the shot.
While employers in industries where social distancing is difficult—food processing, for example—might be tempted to require vaccination, "you have to consider the potential impacts," Zieg said. "What if 40 percent of your employees refuse to take the vaccination? Do you lay off 40 percent of your people?"
Employment law experts say the more prudent course of action at this early stage is to encourage vaccination by educating workers about the safety and efficacy of authorized COVID-19 vaccines, covering the cost of the shots and even offering them on-site. All the while, companies should maintain other protective measures like social distancing and mask-wearing, they say.
"The masks coming off prematurely is one of the big dangers we have to worry about in the workplace," said Dr. Marc Sala, assistant professor of medicine in pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
While the vaccine is intended to prevent people from getting sick, it's not known whether individuals who get vaccinated can still carry and transmit the virus.
Without data about any potential long-term effects, Advocate Aurora Health is not requiring its workers to get the vaccine, Dr. Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention at the 26-hospital network, recently told reporters.
For now, Advocate Aurora will "strongly encourage" workers to get vaccinated and is "optimistic that the vast majority of our team members will take the vaccine over the next few months," Citronberg said, noting that the policy may change in the future as more information becomes available.
Other large local hospital chains, including Northwestern Medicine, the Rush University System for Health and NorthShore University HealthSystem, have taken the same approach. It's a departure for hospitals, which require workers to get flu shots every year.
Despite making the vaccines voluntary, Cook County Health and Loyola Medicine say the majority of workers (75 percent and 70 percent, respectively) who so far have responded to employee surveys indicated they plan to get the shots.
"Whatever an employers' strategy is today, they should revisit that in a few months" when more information is available, LeRoy said. He recommends an "agile" approach that responds to changing conditions such as local infection rates. Employers could also boost vaccinations through policies such as scheduling preferences for workers who get immunized.
Though employers likely won't be able to get doses for their workers for several months, sources recommend surveying employees—as many hospital chains have—to get a sense of whether they're likely to get vaccinated when shots become available.