By Matt Glynn  |  The Buffalo News  |  Sep 6, 2021 | Updated Sep 15, 2021

Why employers aren’t rushing to require workers to get Covid vaccines

There’s a lot at stake for employers deciding whether to impose a vaccine mandate on their workers.

And that’s why many employers are urging their workers to get a Covid-19 vaccination, rather than requiring it.

They are worried about whether it will turn off workers, when it already is a struggle to hire.

And they are wary of inserting themselves into what’s become a hot-button political topic.

Since Hospice and Palliative Care Buffalo announced a mandate, three employees have indicated they will leave. But the percentage of the organization’s vaccinated workforce has increased as well.

Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Center says new hires will need to be vaccinated, but has stopped short of saying current employees who don’t get inoculated will lose their jobs.

Some private industry advocacy groups, like the New York State Bar Association’s executive committee, have urged all employers in the state to require their employees to get vaccinated.

But most local employers, outside of the health care industry, are holding back on mandating vaccines, even though the law generally allows them to.

Here are some of the hurdles facing employer-mandated vaccines:

What will we do without them?

Businesses already are struggling to find people to hire in a tight labor market. To attract workers, they are trying everything from signing bonuses to higher wages.

A vaccine mandate would be another obstacle to keeping or attracting workers, according to attorneys specializing in workplace issues.

If workers leave because of a vaccine mandate, how hard will it be to replace them?

And how severely would a vaccination requirement restrict the already limited pool of qualified job applicants for companies looking to fill openings?

“It’s still that concern about the labor market, that if they lose people, they can’t replace them,” said James Grasso, a partner in Phillips Lytle’s labor and employment group. “It’s a still a big driver.”

When the vaccines were first rolled out, a mandate wasn’t realistic, because not all workers could immediately get a shot. But circumstances have changed over the past several months, with vaccines now widely available.

“I think employers are getting a little tired because the vaccine is there, it’s safe and effective,” Grasso said.

“The tolerance is waning, I think, for employees who won’t get vaccinated, but employers are not yet willing to take that step and accept the risk that if they mandate it, people may quit,” he said.

What’s the penalty for the unvaccinated?

Employers who impose vaccine requirements have to decide how to enforce the rules.

Do they make vaccination a condition of employment?

Or do they allow unvaccinated employees to keep working, but make them undergo regular testing?

It isn’t an easy answer for employers.

If an employer bars unvaccinated workers from coming into the office, that could rankle vaccinated workers who prefer to work from home but are required to return to the office.

There’s also the issue of accommodating workers who seek a religious or medical exemption to vaccination.

And employers with unionized workforces can’t usually impose a vaccine mandate without consulting with the union first, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Is a company willing to take a stand?

Employers may be wary of wading into what they consider controversial waters by imposing a mandate.

“I think employers are worried about getting in the middle of this because they don’t want the perception that they’re interfering with employees’ lives, or that they’re asking them to do something that the employee really doesn’t want to do,” said Christopher Maugans, an attorney with Goldberg Segalla.

That reluctance among employers has continued, even after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission backed employers’ right to implement such requirements, Maugans said.

Moog Inc. CEO John Scannell earlier this summer said he was reluctant to delve into the vaccine mandate issue. Moog hasn’t instituted a requirement.

Health care providers are starting to implement requirements for employees, after the state last month said health care workers have to get vaccinated.

The Buffalo Niagara Partnership isn’t aware of any local employers mandating their workers get vaccinated, beyond the health care industry, which is doing so at New York State’s direction, said Grant Loomis, vice president of public affairs.

Employers are taking a range of approaches toward trying to get their employees vaccinated.

Hospice and Palliative Care Buffalo has adopted one of the most strict vaccine policies in the region. It is requiring vaccinations for all of its employees, except for those with an authorized exemption. And the agency announced its policy even before the state announced its directive for health care workers.

In the first phase, unvaccinated Hospice Buffalo employees were required to undergo Covid-19 testing twice a week. Now the second phase has taken effect, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine.

Unvaccinated Hospice Buffalo workers must get their first dose of vaccine by Sept. 27, and the second of a two-dose series by no later than Nov. 1. Those employees have to keep undergoing twice-weekly testing for two weeks after completing the vaccination series. Workers who obtain an approved exemption under state guidelines won’t have to get vaccinated.

“As a trusted health care provider, we must do even more to protect our extremely vulnerable patients as well as our colleagues,” said Dr. Christopher Kerr, Hospice Buffalo’s CEO. “The mandatory vaccination is consistent with this obligation.”

Hospice Buffalo says 85% of its workers are now vaccinated, up from 80% when the mandate was announced.

“Others have expressed willingness to pursue vaccination now that the FDA gave approval to Pfizer,” said Karen Pusateri, a spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, three Hospice Buffalo employees have said they plan to quit and look for a job elsewhere, rather than be vaccinated, she said.

Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Center has told its employees they must get vaccinated, but stopped short of declaring unvaccinated employees will lose their jobs if they don’t comply. It’s requiring all new hires to be vaccinated.

“We will evaluate the impact on the employment status of any unvaccinated individuals who do not have an authorized exemption in the coming weeks,” the cancer center said.

Still other employers are imposing no requirements at all, while encouraging employees to get their shots. Scannell, Moog’s CEO, has expressed reluctance about imposing a mandate on the Elma-based manufacturer’s workforce.

Around the country, employers are turning to different types of vaccine requirements for workers:

  • CVS Health is requiring corporate employees and certain employees who interact with patients to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31. Its store pharmacists have until Nov. 30 to be fully vaccinated, due to the size of that employee population. “Under our new policy, vaccination is a condition of employment with CVS Health,” said Tara Burke, a spokeswoman.
  • Delta Airlines has notified unvaccinated employees who participate in the airline’s health plan that they will be charged an additional $200-a-month fee starting in November. The airline cited the cost of hospital stays for Covid patients and the impact on the company’s earnings.
  • The Pentagon has told military troops that they must get vaccinated against Covid-19, adding it to the list of other shots they must receive.
  • Goldman Sachs will require anyone who enters its U.S. offices – visitors and staff – to be vaccinated, effective Tuesday.

Vaccine mandates are showing up in other areas of life, too. Students at State University of New York schools – including the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State – must be vaccinated in order to attend classes on campus. Some performance venues are requiring proof of vaccination, or a negative Covid-19 test, to get into a show.

The New York State Bar Association’s executive committee, in a report issued in late August, made its case for all employers in the state to require worker vaccinations.

“To safeguard public health, we must do everything within our legal powers to make sure everyone gets vaccinated,” said T. Andrew Brown, the bar association’s president. “The science and the law are on our side in this effort, in which we must take action to safeguard the largest number of people possible and cannot be held hostage to the opposition of an outspoken minority.”

What would spur more mandates?

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs research poll found 50% of working Americans were in favor of requiring employees who work in person at their workplace to be fully vaccinated.

What might lead Buffalo-area employees to adopt vaccine mandates?

“I think it would have to take a serious interference with their operations or just administrative inconvenience that they can’t put up with,” Grasso said.

A bigger pool of qualified job applicants would help, too, Maugans said.

One potential catalyst could come on Sunday, when the $300 a week supplemental federal unemployment benefits expire, although economists believe there are other key reasons keeping workers on the sidelines.

“Perhaps more people will really need to come back to work, and at that point in time, employers will feel more comfortable taking that jump,” he said.

The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine may also prompt more employers to implement mandates, Maugans said.

“There was a theory that a lot of people out there were citing that the reason they didn’t want to get vaccinated was because it had the emergency-use only,” Maugans said.

“So the question is, was that actually some people’s reason?” he said. “And if it was, that reason’s no longer there, so perhaps people will feel more comfortable with that.”