A surprising reason many businesses don’t have Covid vaccine mandates

The Biden administration wants every large business to require Covid vaccinations for their workers. A federal rule could make that mandatory by next year. Some big companies, such as Goldman Sachs and United Airlines, aren’t waiting, with vaccine requirements in place now for all workers or those who enter a company work site.

But many companies don’t require their workers to get vaccinated—and there’s a surprising connection to the labor shortage that’s making it very hard for many companies to find workers. At the recent Milken Institute Global Conference, I moderated a panel discussion on the evolving workplace with five business leaders in different fields. I asked each whether their companies require employees to get a Covid vaccine. None of them do.

The main reason is that some employees would probably leave if forced to get vaccinated, and the labor shortage might make it difficult or impossible to replace them. “If you require vaccination, I think we could lose 10%, 20% of the work force,” Scott Myers, CEO of packaging firm Advanced Converting Works, said during the panel discussion. “It’s a huge percentage. When you look at manufacturing, there are other opportunities out there.”

David Dill, CEO of hospital chain LifePoint Health, says he might lose 2% to 3% of his workforce if the firm required vaccines. That would be enough to cause stress at 89 regional hospitals that already struggle to find enough workers. LifePoint’s hospitals are typically the only large medical facility in the regions they serve, but their employees still have other options. “We’re the only hospital in town in most of our communities, but we’re not the only health-care provider in town,” Dill said. Nurses or technicians, say, could leave the hospital to work at a doctor’s office.

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - 2021/08/18: A nurse administers a COVID-19 booster shot to Lana Sellers at a vaccination site in Eastmonte Park, Altamonte Springs. 
The third shot was offered to immunocompromised individuals, with all of the more than 300 appointments filled on the first day the shots were available in Seminole County. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A nurse administers a COVID-19 booster shot to Lana Sellers at a vaccination site in Eastmonte Park, Altamonte Springs, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

All CEOs on the Milken panel said they’re trying to raise vaccination rates through education and persuasion efforts. In some instance, employees have to be vaccinated because local regulations or client policies require it. “Officially, we do not mandate a vaccine but it sure feels like it,” said Scott Hisey, CEO of Qualtek, an infrastructure firm. “As each of the states that we work in and our customers are requiring it, we’re slowly connecting the dots to a mandate.”

The Biden administration said in early September it would draft new rules requiring all employees at businesses with more than 100 workers to get vaccinated. That would cover about 100 million workers (including many already vaccinated) and ratchet up the nation’s overall vaccination rate. But the Labor Department hasn’t yet issued a final rule and it may not do so until next year.

Many CEOs favor a government mandate because it would require all businesses to abide by the same rules instead of letting some lure workers with looser workplace standards. “If there are broad national or state mandates, they give us cover that all health care providers are treated the same way,” Dill said. “I’m 100% supportive of that.”

Since many workers have shifted from office settings to remote locations, some companies don’t really need to worry about employees being vaccinated unless they show up at group functions or interact with other employees, or customers. During the Covid pandemic, clothing reseller Tradesy shifted to an all-remote workforce, except for a group that works at a fulfillment center.

Vaccinations aren’t required for most of the staff, but there are reasons to get vaccinated, anyway. “We just did our first all-company off-site, and we required our employees to be vaccinated to attend that,” Tradesy CEO Tracy DiNunzio said. “Any other off-site or group activities, they have to share proof of vaccination and go through multiple rounds of testing.”

Some employers think aggressive persuasion is the best approach. “We do not mandate the vaccine, but we educate heavily,” said Doug Sieg, managing partner at New Jersey investing firm Lord Abbett. “People have a lot of personal reasons as to why they may not. They’re nervous about it. They’re scared. They’ve been through a global pandemic. I think over time we’re going to get there, but it’s got to come through education and it’s got to be their choice.” Until the government finally says otherwise.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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