When the earliest of COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out in December, one of the things we began talking about in our then-virtual newsroom was whether employers would make their employees get the shot.
It seemed like inside baseball, even for our business audience. Because who wouldn’t want to get vaccinated? We were roughly 10 months into a pandemic that paralyzed the economy, forced millions of layoffs and brought the health care system to the brink. Anything we could do to bring this nightmare to a quick end would be worth doing and doing quickly.
This is an Opinion
Certainly the overwhelming majority of Arkansans would rush to get shots as soon as they were available. Governments, perhaps in concert with business, nonprofits and health groups, would mount furious efforts to fill the gaps. In only the most obscure situations would employers have to cajole their workers, much less require them to get shots as terms of their employment.
And yet here we are in August with less than 40% of the state’s population fully vaccinated and less than 50% partially vaccinated. And it’s only now, with hospitalizations at a pandemic high and deaths back on the rise, that we’ve seen Arkansas’ vaccination pace begin to quicken.
So employers have stepped in. It started in the places you’d expect — hospitals. On July 7, Mercy, with hospitals in Fort Smith and Rogers, became the first in Arkansas to require all staff to be vaccinated. Others followed, supported by the Arkansas Hospital Association, which said hospital employee vaccinations would “maintain the long-term ability of our health care system to respond to the pandemic and to safely care for patients.”
Then, as the fast-spreading delta variant ran wild, employers outside health care began implementing their own measures. That phase began on July 30 right here in Arkansas with the country’s biggest employer, Walmart Inc. of Bentonville. At the same time it reinstated the mask requirement for frontline workers, Walmart required that all corporate employees and managers who travel the U.S. must be vaccinated by Oct. 4.
But it was Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale that took it a step further, mandating the vaccine for all its workers, becoming the biggest U.S. food company to date to impose the requirement. CEO Donnie King said that they’d tried just about everything else to get shots in arms, but that they needed to do more.
“We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated — today, under half of our team members are,” he said.
It’s no small thing for any employer to take this on.
As a manager, if your workforce includes hourly workers operating factories, distribution centers, restaurants or theme parks, you may face opposition against mandates from unions. Tyson Foods and the Walt Disney Co. of Los Angeles have faced this challenge.
You’ll also run the risk of exacerbating an already historic labor crunch. Mandate-adverse employees in competitive industries might rather work somewhere else, leaving you to replace workers in a seller’s market for talent. Your costs will go up.
There’s also the blowback. Mercy’s mandate drew protests in Rogers and at its hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where 50 people showed up one day to decry what they see as an infringement of personal liberties. In Rogers, a woman speaking to the local CBS affiliate described the mandate as “medical Jim Crow.”
And there’s the challenge to your human resources department, which will bear the brunt of implementation. As labor attorney Stuart Jackson wrote for Arkansas Business in January, HR managers must be prepared to listen and respond to employee requests that involve health-related or religious reasons not to take the vaccine and try to make reasonable accommodations. To fail to do so risks violating the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act — a potentially costly prospect.
It’s no wonder a hard vaccination mandate can seem to many business owners, executives and managers as the “nuclear option.” The carrot — gift cards, days off and other incentives — seems preferable to the stick.
We were naive to think that the majority of Arkansans would happily embrace the vaccine, or that our institutions — health care, business, government, nonprofits — could quickly convert the holdouts. But should it be this hard?
I interviewed Jackson of Wright Lindsey Jennings of Little Rock in January on what employers should consider when weighing vaccine mandates. You can watch that video at arkansasbusiness.com/vaccine.