US companies desperate to reopen ask: What's your Covid-19 vaccination status?

Goldman is among the few firms making vaccine status disclosures mandatory.
Goldman is among the few firms making vaccine status disclosures mandatory.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The message from many companies to their office workers is clear. It will soon be time to shed the slippers for hard shoes and return to your desk. But many companies are still puzzling over a single quandary: What to do about Covid-19 vaccines. Should they require employees to get them? Encourage or cajole or bribe them?

"We're all kind of, you know, flying by the seat of our pants," said Mr Wayne Wager, chief executive of Remote Medical International, a consulting firm in Seattle that is helping companies that are reopening offices.

Mr Wager said his own company had not decided what to do yet, but would probably demand that anyone coming back be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Most companies are hoping to avoid requiring vaccines. The federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws says they can, but CEOs fear vaccine mandates would lead to lawsuits, invite political upheaval and be hard to enforce. But they are worried about safety. An outbreak could force a company to retrench on masking and social distancing policies, making it even harder to get back to normal. So they are trying everything short of a mandate, without yet ruling one out.

Nearly one-third of companies have yet to develop any vaccine policy, according to a survey of 770 companies conducted by human resources software company Tinypulse.

As companies weigh their options, many are canvassing employees to determine how many have already received a shot.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said last month that it was legal to ask employees for their vaccination status. The EEOC also said that companies could require workers to be vaccinated to come to the office, but they must accommodate employees' religious beliefs or health concerns like allergies. Solutions include keeping a worker isolated or allowing them to work remotely, experts say.

Last Tuesday (June 8), Goldman Sachs sent an e-mail telling employees they had to report their Covid-19 vaccination status within two days.

Goldman is among the few firms making such disclosures mandatory. Though it will not require proof, the bank informed employees that lying about their status could result in disciplinary action, including termination.

Other companies are effectively paying employees to share their status, or encouraging them to do so without quite mandating it. Walmart, for instance, is offering US$75 (S$99) to any worker who shows proof of vaccination. Bank of America told employees who want to return to the office that they had the option to upload their vaccination status into the company's internal system.

"We had about 50,000 teammates that put the information in and give us the ability to call them back," the bank's CEO Brian Moynihan said last month at a hearing of the House financial services committee.

Mr Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, said that some companies are polling workers about their vaccination status, hoping that a high rate will make it more palatable to mandate vaccines.

"Once we hit 70 per cent, CEOs like me feel comfortable saying, you know what, the will of the employee population has spoken," Mr Taylor said, noting that exceptions would still need to be made for those with religious or health reasons.

On the other hand, such data may allow a company to avoid a mandate altogether.

"For many workplaces, it's going to be hard to argue that getting the last 10 per cent of people vaccinated is what's necessary to create a safe workplace," said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, a physician who is leading the coronavirus response at the consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

To raise the proportion of vaccinated employees, companies are trying to make getting a vaccination easier.

About 42 per cent of companies plan to offer on-site vaccination, and 56 per cent plan to pay employees for time they spend getting vaccinated, according to a forthcoming Willis Towers Watson survey of 660 employers.

Only 11 per cent of companies surveyed by Willis Towers Watson are offering financial incentives, with more than half of those incentives worth less than US$100.

Such incentives can be expensive. In a deal United Airlines struck with the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 59,000 pilots, airlines are paying fully vaccinated pilots a bonus equivalent to as much as 13 hours of pay. (In a similar deal it struck with the Association of Flight Attendants, it is paying the equivalent of nearly 10 hours of wages.)

The companies that have mandated vaccines so far tend to be in industries such as healthcare, where unvaccinated employees pose a high health risk, or businesses with relatively few employees - although these have come with some pushback. Airlines, which fly hundreds of passengers in close quarters across the world, have also been more aggressive. Both United and Delta Air Lines are requiring vaccines for new employees, a move that can be easier to enact than a broad-based mandate, but may also have little impact on current crews.

Quartz, a New York-based media start-up, reopened its offices this month with a vaccine requirement. It made the decision after surveying its 104 employees multiple times, said CEO Zach Seward.

"People were loud and clear that they wanted the confidence in knowing that everybody else is vaccinated," Mr Seward said.

Mr Seward said he had not heard complaints, though he noted that was likely a "privilege of being a smaller company".

Saks Fifth Avenue is requiring the 500 workers at its office in Manhattan's financial district to be vaccinated. CEO Marc Metrick said that Saks would have an "accommodation process" for those who could not be vaccinated.

Where vaccine rates are lower, mandates may be more complicated. This is in part because there is more resistance and because legislation limiting the ability to require vaccines for students, employees or the public in general has been proposed in at least 25 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Potential legal issues worry JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who has mentioned those concerns when discussing vaccine requirements.

Still, Mr Dimon, a vocal critic of remote work, said at the bank's May 18 annual shareholder meeting that the bank would "consider at one point mandating" the vaccine.

So far, the bank has only strongly encouraged it - and asked employees who want to go mask-free in its US corporate offices to log their vaccination status in its system first.