Should employers mandate vaccines? How to keep employees safe during ongoing pandemic challenges

Responsible employers should keep up to date with policies that align with the most effective ways of keeping employees safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Willis Towers Watson’s Fall 2021 COVID-19 Survey among 543 large employers, a majority indicated an employee vaccination mandate would remain only if federal requirements were upheld. On Jan. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the vaccinate-or-test rule for private employers with more than 100 workers.

The Supreme Court’s ruling leaves vaccination and testing protocols for millions of workers up to their employer, leaving many businesses to decide on their own. It is up to talent leaders to best adapt health and safety practices most beneficial to their environment to keep employees safe from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The recent ruling and the rise of the Omicron variant have many employers and employees wondering how to best keep themselves and their workplace safe and productive. Companies that are flexible and analyze the needs of their own employees will find themselves ahead. By focusing on the health and safety of their workplace, employers can prepare to handle new variants and contain the threats of the ongoing pandemic.

Providing a safe environment

“Companies that have been able to navigate the last two years most successfully are generally companies that took a very proactive stance and moved forward with developing their own testing strategies,” said Dr. Patricia Toro, senior director at Willis Towers Watson. Strategies that “generally superseded even what the CDC was recommending” and “tried to improve compliance and decrease overall friction” were most successful.

Many companies have transitioned to as much remote work as possible, decreasing the density of employees in the workplace. According to the WTW survey, a third of workers currently work remotely, 84 percent of large businesses support workers by offering COVID-19 testing to manage outbreaks and 90 percent mandate indoor mask-wearing.

If employers choose to continue working in-person, Toro says HEPA filters in vac systems and open-air circulation are some ways to mitigate the potential spread of the virus. Providing adequate masks, such as N95 or KN95 masks, is another essential way employers can help workers stay safe.

The WTW survey also found nearly one in five employers believe the vaccination rate of their employees is less than 50 percent. For companies with such low vaccination rates, these methods of mitigation risk can go a long way, but providing easy access to vaccinations with paid time off is the best way to protect employees from the virus.

Mandating vaccines despite Supreme Court ruling

Vaccines are advantageous on an individual and organizational level, as vaccinated individuals are four times less likely to be infected and 15 times less likely to die of COVID-19 than unvaccinated individuals.

“Vaccines will go a long way towards improving the safety of against Coronavirus in the workplace,” said Toro. If companies decide to move forward with a mandate, “they have an opportunity to attract people who want to work in a fully vaccinated environment or nearly fully vaccinated environment.”

Employers with vaccinated environments will likely have a marginal advantage in attracting top talent whose health and safety priorities align. According to the WTW survey, 13 percent of companies reported increased employee recruitment or retention due to a vaccine mandate.

Employees should feel safe in their work environment and assured safety through guidelines and actions. Eighty-four percent of surveyed companies already offer regular testing to track outbreaks. Offering free testing, free masks and proper vaccination support can go a long way. Further, new CDC data shows booster shots are instrumental in protecting against the Omicron variant.

Concerns that vaccine mandates will exacerbate the “Great Resignation” are largely overblown. Few employers with vaccination mandates have seen a spike in resignations. The WTW survey found just 3 percent of employers with vaccination mandates saw an increase in resignations. Still, nearly a third of the businesses considering vaccine mandates reported being worried about resignations.

“Overall, what we’re hearing both from our employer partners and what we’re seeing in surveys is that there’s not a lot of people who are leaving. Think United Airlines,” said Toro. According to United CEO Scott Kirby, United Airlines implemented a vaccine mandate for its 67,000 U.S. employees, and only a “handful” of employees resigned as a result.

Looking forward

While the Supreme Court may have struck down the emergency mandate, the pandemic isn’t expected to end any time soon—now is the opportunity to prepare for the future and be proactive about all the variables under your control. Successful companies will implement strategies unique to their workplace, be flexible with workers’ individual needs and provide a safe and comfortable environment.

Just as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, effective strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 change over time and will continue to evolve. Employers that understand their local circumstances and stick to the most effective ways of keeping their employees safe will be well-equipped to protect themselves and their community moving forward.