With the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines have become a lightning rod. Add the idea of COVID-19 vaccine mandates into the mix, and you create the lightning itself. The controversy has affected everyone, but it has impacted employers uniquely.
There is a lot of historical precedent for vaccine mandates in the workforce; our nation’s first vaccine mandate came in 1777, when George Washington mandated smallpox inoculation for soldiers in the Continental Army. While I wholeheartedly believed in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine from the start, I still struggled with the idea of forcing any of my employees to get vaccinated before full FDA approval was granted. Like many other employers, I wouldn’t have been entirely confident in making that call.
That said, my company—a healthcare platform—was fortunate. We decided to prioritize transparency and encouraged employees to get vaccinated. And we were able to achieve a 100% vaccination rate for employees even before the FDA acted.
Now that the Pfizer vaccine has FDA approval, we’ve put a mandate in place for all new employees. I can say with full confidence that this was the right move. We aren’t alone: Tyson Foods has had a vaccine mandate in place since August 3rd but hasn’t stopped there. They’re also incentivizing vaccinations by giving employees who do get the vaccine 20 hours of paid sick time per year. It’s time for all businesses to follow suit with their own vaccine mandates. Here is why.
With great power comes great responsibility
Part of what made mandates such a difficult decision before the FDA approval was the politicization of the vaccine. People who worried that the vaccine was politically motivated were opposed to mandates of any kind, especially from the federal government. Trust in government is low, and division is rampant. In reality, the federal government’s power to mandate a vaccine is almost nonexistent; the real decision-making power is left to states and localities, all of which have taken varied approaches. Biden’s own mandate issued last Thursday is restricted to government employees in the executive branch and federal contractors.
Ultimately, the real influence comes from public figures outside of the government who hold some sway with their fans and followers. Take Ariana Grande or Olivia Rodrigo, who have used their platforms to encourage vaccination. While their followers might not trust what they hear from political figures, many people trust these celebrities and are more likely to follow their leads.
This influence isn’t only coming from celebrities and athletes, though. Business leaders also have the power—and a responsibility—to effect change. They need to do everything they can to ensure that their employees, customers, and communities are safe.
Why now is the time
While businesses have been hesitant to implement mandates so far, they should feel compelled to act. Beyond the FDA approval supporting the safety of Pfizer’s vaccine, both patients and medical professionals are struggling. A friend of mine who works in an ICU expressed she wishes unvaccinated people could walk a day in her shoes and see the terrible realities of a COVID-19 infection. She feels that folks who truly weighed the risk of complications from COVID-19 versus the minor side effects of a vaccine would choose the vaccine every time.
I agree with this. As it is, healthcare workers everywhere are seeing patients fight for their lives and then, if they survive, deal with astronomical medical bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not more). If these costs are not paid, they will trickle down to taxpayers. Insurance premiums will likely increase while people get even less from their insurance plans. Companies like Delta are taking action to combat this. If the airline’s workers aren’t vaccinated by November 1st, they will have to pay an additional $200 a month to remain on their health insurance plan. The financial risk businesses face when employees aren’t vaccinated is real, and initiatives like this give companies a way to encourage better choices.
Mandating vaccines or imposing penalties like these can also be a recruitment tool. While some businesses want to avoid alienating potential applicants, they may not have considered applicants who won’t join a team where vaccination is optional. Businesses can offer prospective hires more security and assurance when they require vaccinations while also protecting everyone from COVID-19.
Building a foundation for vaccine mandates
The most effective approach any business leader can take to support employees before implementing a mandate is to lead by example. In my company’s case, our executive team was purposefully vocal about our excitement to get the vaccine. We kept the team informed about our eligibility to receive it, and we were open about our health experiences after receiving the vaccine.
We encouraged our employees to book their appointments during work hours, and we allowed them to stay home with no questions asked if they experienced side effects. As a healthcare company, we’re fortunate to have doctors and other healthcare workers on our team who can answer any of their colleagues’ questions.
For businesses that haven’t implemented mandates but are considering doing so, here are a few ways we cultivated a culture and environment where COVID-19 safety was the focus and vaccination was encouraged:
- We created a mask mandate, which made COVID-19 safety top of mind.
- The company kept everyone informed about COVID-19, at all points.
- We required testing every two weeks and proof of negative results for employees who wanted to return to the office without a vaccination.
- If people had concerns about getting vaccinated, we made sure they felt able and welcome to share those worries without judgment.
- By focusing less on what employees were required to do and more on what would happen if they didn’t take precautions, we shifted the focus from the vaccine to the people affected by COVID-19.
- Ultimately, we took an approach that combined transparency while encouraging everyone toward the same goal.
For businesses and leaders trying to navigate bringing employees back during COVID-19 while ensuring the safety of workers and the surrounding communities, the most important thing to keep in mind is this: It’s not always about us. We all have personal freedoms, but we do not have the freedom to put other people at risk. After all, this virus impacts everyone. And it’s up to all of us to embrace change and create a safer world.
Michael Swartz is the president of Health Karma. He founded the company with the goal of raising the bar in healthcare and empowering people to understand and navigate their healthcare journeys—regardless of whether they have insurance. Find Michael on Twitter @MrFixHealthcare.