As we eagerly wait for the FDA to approve the first COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., our minds are spinning with how our lives will change and how soon they’ll change. It’s an emotional light at the end of a very long tunnel, for sure — but what will it mean for returning to on-site work? Can our employers require us to get a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to the office? Can you be fired if you refuse to get a vaccine?
The fact is, employers in the U.S. can generally fire you for reasons both big and petty — because you’re bad at your job, but also because they just don’t like the color of your shirt. Since all states except Montana currently allow at-will employment — meaning you can be fired for any reason that’s not illegal — it makes sense that people are concerned about what that means when it comes to vaccination. But should they be?
One of the major caveats to this general rule is firing for discriminatory reasons as laid out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — like being disciplined or fired due to gender, race, or religion. This means that if your religion prohibits you from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, it could be illegal for your employer to require getting vaccinated.
Mandatory vaccine policies also have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which says that, in order to qualify as mandatory, vaccines should be “job-related” or “justified by a direct threat.” But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has already said that the coronavirus pandemic does meet the direct threat requirement, which is why employers have been able to require taking your temperature every day. Still, if you have a valid medical reason for not getting vaccinated, you’d be exempt from the requirement to get one for work.
The question is, will most workplaces actually make the vaccines mandatory? Denise M. Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, certainly believes so — and not just workplaces that are customer-facing such as restaurants or hotels. “I think that the notion of requiring a vaccine is well within the responsibility of the employer to offer a safe and healthy work environment,” she says.
“They're liable if they make decisions that put people at risk,” she points out. “Just imagine if there were Legionnaires disease in the air conditioning system of your business — the organization would be liable for the illnesses that people came down with. The idea that we have a way of preventing a potentially fatal disease and the employer wouldn't require something, to me, seems like kind of a non-starter.”
But perhaps the issue of being “forced” to get a vaccine is causing a stir since nothing like that has happened in recent memory, and most of our mandatory vaccines are received in childhood. “At least in the United States, we're required to be vaccinated to go to school,” says Rousseau. “You've got a population that typically is vaccinated, so the requirement of vaccination extending to the workplace is probably new because it hasn't been needed before.”
Considering how serious a threat COVID is, the concern, then, shouldn’t so much be that your boss could fire you if you don’t get both your shots, but rather what happens if your employer doesn’t seem motivated to ensure everyone is getting vaccinated. “How will employees react, and how will companies address the issue of their employees not feeling safe?” Rousseau asks. It’s really the central worry many of us have had around work for the past year, fighting for clarity on workplace safety standards and their proper enforcement. In some industries, such as the meat processing industry, providing a safe working environment during the pandemic has been an unmitigated failure, with thousands of workers getting sick and many dying.
Still, there are things companies can do even if they don’t mandate vaccines. “The idea that you would support vaccination increases the likelihood that people are vaccinated, even if you didn't require it,” says Rousseau. “If people choose not to be vaccinated, can the organization require them to wear a mask if they come in? [If] not having a vaccine requires you to be distanced from your peers, that starts creating peer pressure on people to accept the vaccination. So I could imagine a soft policy which rewards people for being vaccinated with more freedom and flexibility.”
Peer pressure can be a powerful force for encouraging doing the right thing. Once there’s enough momentum, there may come a cultural tipping point — not unlike the way Americans have adapted to wearing masks, though of course not without contention. “I do work in organizational change, and one of the things we always say is, you'll always get the first 20% who really likes this idea,” says Rousseau. “Then the next 20, they’re doing it because they see the benefits of it. The next 20 or so are doing it because others are doing it. And once you’ve got like 60/40, the pressure is on — do I really hate this enough to keep saying no?”
After this tipping point occurs, the workplace culture will make it seem much easier to comply with the new policy. “And that last 15 to 20%, they’re going to leave you,” Rousseau surmises. “Because they're disaffected enough to not want to be a part of anything. They're in an anomalous position, and you're probably not going to worry about them.”
So, how should company HR departments communicate their encouragement of getting vaccinated? Rousseau says it’s fine to send out a general letter informing everyone of the company’s policy. “But then call people together in groups. In a hospital it'd be the nurses together, the doctors together, the pharmacists together, because these are teams they identify with. You talk with them about the policy and what you'd like to have happen, and do they have any concerns?” says Rousseau. “And as soon as people in their intact groups see that their peers and their friends are intrigued with this idea or supportive of it, a lot of the work of persuasion is done.”
Even better would be for companies to help obtain COVID-19 vaccines for their employees, once they become available to the general population, the way that some companies provide yearly flu vaccines right in their offices. “To be a good employer is to provide easy access, especially since there is some scarcity, right?” says Rousseau.
And it’s certainly in the company’s financial interests to make sure their employees are vaccinated, she argues. “Can you imagine what insurance companies are going to do? You've got an employer who provides insurance as part of their employment package, and people are not getting vaccinated — how will the insurer feel about that given the potential costs of having COVID patients on your books?”
The expected scarcity of the vaccines means that companies that have been able to work remotely should continue doing so. Vaccines will be distributed to high-risk groups and frontline workers first, and there could be supply shortages with Pfizer not being able to obtain additional doses until June or July. But it’s good to start talking about how we will deal with and react to vaccination in the workplace, especially as we live in a culture that’s increasingly hostile toward vaccines. “My expectation is that it will become a requirement,” says Rousseau. “I certainly expect my university to require it. We would require it of students to protect each other. And of course, I have an obligation to protect my colleagues.”
It’s also undeniably a huge relief that we’re able to have this discussion at all — that very soon, an effective COVID-19 vaccine could be available to us. “I love this conversation, because it's hopeful,” says Rousseau.