There has been much discussion in the C-suite since President Biden announced that all companies with over 100 employees would have to mandate vaccination or carry out frequent testing of its work force. The immediate negative reaction by Republican governors in populous states such as Florida and Texas make implementation of the program even more complex.
Public health entities such as the World Health Organization have opposed mandates. In a policy brief in April, 2021, the WHO said, “Mandatory vaccination should be considered only if it is necessary for, and proportionate to, the achievement of an important public health goal…if such a goal can be achieved with less coercive or intrusive policy interventions such as public education, a mandate would not be ethically justified…They should be considered only if they would increase the prevention of significant risks of morbidity and mortality.”
The WHO goes on to say that “mandatory vaccination has a potential deleterious impact on public confidence and public trust, particularly in the scientific community…This could have unintended consequences for vulnerable or marginalized populations…mistrust in authorities may be rooted in histories of unethical medical and public health policies and practices as well as structural inequity.”
The new Biden policy is intended to give air cover to companies that want to mandate vaccines as a means of ensuring their ability to produce goods and deliver services. The Business Roundtable endorsed the President’s decision, saying that “Over the past several weeks, many companies have decided to implement a vaccine mandate for some or all of their employees, a decision we applaud.”
The reality on the ground is a bit different; I know of employers which have only 30 percent of their employees vaccinated despite best efforts at days off, educational materials and individual counseling. Several of our clients are enduring serious labor shortages in their factories and in the delivery of their goods. There is deep concern about mandating vaccination unless all companies do so, for fear of defection of staff to another less-regimented employer.
Some groups like the Ad Council are trying to address the issues related to the new mandate. Through its Health Action Alliance, the Ad Council and its partners will host a town hall this Thursday (Sept. 23) that will feature a Q&A with former Assistant Secretary of Labor and OSHA Administrator David Michaels, PhD MPH and other experts.
Here is a suggestion: The Business Roundtable and/or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce should help forge a new Employer-Employee Compact. Businesses should acknowledge that they have been working their teams hard since the onset of the pandemic given the sudden spikes in demand for certain products and the unwillingness of older workers to risk exposure to COVID-19. Business must make a commitment to worker health, not just safety, by offering enhanced mental health benefits along with other health-related benefits such as subsidizing exercise programs. Make the workday more flexible and change the work itself to avoid burnout or physical injury from repetitive motion. Invest in better facilities for the people, with technology to enhance the work experience instead of reducing headcount.
“A new Employer-Employee Compact is absolutely necessary,” Stephanie J. Creary, Assistant Professor of Management at The Wharton School, said to me yesterday. “Prior to the pandemic, many employers were treating mental health and workplace flexibility as ‘nice to haves.’ Yet, we have learned…taking employee health and well-being seriously is key to work engagement and productivity and employees’ willingness to stay in their jobs and the workforce.”
Richard Edelman is CEO.