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Experts say mandatory COVID-19 vaccination ensures workers remain safe and healthy. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
  • A number of companies are moving toward making COVID-19 vaccination mandatory as a prerequisite for in-person work.
  • Experts say the requirement helps ensure workers remain safe and healthy.
  • Experts also note that if a significant percentage of employees are reluctant to get the vaccine, it may be better to encourage the inoculation rather than require it.

Both COVID-19 vaccines now offered in the United States are effective and safe for most people, with public health officials urging people to get vaccinated as quickly as possible to bring an end to the pandemic.

But electing to receive the vaccine is ultimately still a matter of personal choice.

That is, perhaps, unless your employer decides otherwise.

For instance, on Jan. 21, United Airlines Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said he favored requiring all employees who work for the company to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I recognize it’s controversial, [but] I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines and for other companies to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory,” Kirby said, according to a CNBC report.

With a few exceptions, such vaccine mandates would be legal, most experts agree, but questions remain about the practicality of such mandates.

Many employers agreed with Kirby’s assessment, citing company wellness and productivity as major factors.

The economic and personal ramifications [of the COVID-19 pandemic] have been devastating to our foundations, creativity, and safety,” said Matthew Putman, chief executive officer of science technology company Nanotronics, which operates as an essential business.

“As a company, we believe it is necessary to provide a crucial foundation for a future that is safe and free of existential fear,” Putman told Healthline. “For our work environment, which requires humans to be working and building together, this begins with an mRNA therapy (vaccine) for our employees.”

He said the company plans to host educational sessions explaining the technology and safety of the vaccine and its public health benefits to bolster employee confidence in the shot.

“A benefit for mandating vaccines is that it can show the employer is doing everything reasonably possible to protect the health of their workforce,” said Chad Sorenson, president of HR Florida State Council Inc., a trade organization representing human resource professionals in Florida.

In addition, mandating vaccines could also give employees more confidence in the safety of their workplaces and their co-workers.

“While nothing is 100 percent guaranteed, they would know the employer takes the threat of COVID seriously and is doing everything possible to protect the employee while returning to the office,” Sorenson told Healthline.

In a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. employees, nearly 4 in 10 said their employer would require vaccination as a prerequisite to returning to in-person work, according to a survey by analytics platform Perceptyx.

Among those survey respondents, 54 percent said they would feel safe returning to the office if they were vaccinated, even if others weren’t.

That said, “some employees, however, could be upset their employer is ‘forcing’ them to choose between getting a vaccine they are skeptical about and keeping their job,” Sorenson said.

The data so far seems to bear that out.

More than half of essential workers say employers should not require employees to be vaccinated before returning to work. More than 40 percent say they would consider leaving their jobs if they were required to be vaccinated, according to the Perceptyx survey.

Given this, a better tactic for employers might be to encourage vaccines rather than mandate them.

“Mandating employees to receive a vaccine creates several legal risks for employers, including claims of disability and religious discrimination. Accordingly, it is smart for employers to instead incentivize employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and make it convenient for employees to do so,” Amanda Marie Baer, a senior associate in the Labor, Employment, and Employee Benefits Group at the law firm Mirick O’Connell in Massachusetts, told Healthline.

“I anticipate that the most common incentive we will see will be paid time off to receive and, if necessary, recover from the vaccine,” she said. “A few days of paid time off for employees to receive a vaccine is a no-brainer for employers because the alternative — weeks off if an employee is sick with COVID — is more disruptive and costly.”

But whether and how employers can push their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a moot point while vaccine production struggles to catch up with demand, and distribution is uneven from state to state.

That gets especially tricky for organizations such as the airlines, whose essential workers have residences in many different states and may be in different tiers of vaccine access from each other due to the Trump administration’s initial decision to let individual states decide how they distribute the shot.

“Our focus is on access to the vaccine,” Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, told Healthline. “Right now, flight attendants are in different tiers for access in each state. We need a federal approach that prioritizes flight attendants as essential workers facilitating interstate commerce.”

James T. Belton, a spokesperson for United Captain and United ALPA (the airline pilots union), agreed.

“The state of our industry is precarious, and we need to claw our way out of it. And vaccines help,” Belton told Healthline. “But it is premature to look at mandates coming down the pike. We’ll have something more concrete on that when it comes up.”