US firms mull over compulsory Covid-19 jabs for staff

Vaccines loom large as US companies dial up plans to bring more workers back to the office. PHOTO: AFP

BLOOMBERG - Mondelez International, the maker of Ritz Crackers and Trident gum, wants to start welcoming workers back to office this summer, though with a caveat - they must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

It is a thorny issue for many companies as some workers are hesitant about getting the shots, and Mondelez has not finalised its plan.

Yet, for chief executive Dirk Van De Put, vaccines are a way to ensure safety while restoring workplace culture and camaraderie.

"We want to create an environment where you feel comfortable and it's like it used to be at the office," he said. "We can do that only if everybody's vaccinated."

Vaccines loom large as US companies dial up plans to bring more workers back to the office and cities ease Covid-19 restrictions, with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio vowing a full reopening of the nation's largest metropolis by July 1.

The New York Stock Exchange has begun opening further for traders who can prove they are fully vaccinated, and Goldman Sachs Group has formulated a plan to get US employees to return to the office next month, now that shots are widely available.

Some employers are pulling out all the stops for their workers to get vaccinated by offering incentives or holding inoculation drives at corporate facilities.

Surveys indicate that a significant number of companies are at least considering vaccine requirements as a condition for returning to the office, but few have publicly committed to that approach amid concerns over the potential backlash from employees, implementation headaches and legal risks that could accompany a mandate.

"I think there are many employers that would like to mandate but in fact would like to not be the first movers on this," said Dr Jeff Levin-Scherz, the population health leader at Willis Towers Watson.

A March survey by the consulting firm found that 23 per cent of US companies were planning or considering a vaccine mandate for employees to return to the workplace, while one in 10 was looking at requiring shots as a condition of employment.

Still, that is down from a January survey in which 45 per cent of respondents said they were studying or planning a vaccine mandate for in-person work and 34 per cent were mulling over vaccination as an employment condition.

For Mondelez, the company intends to initially bring back only vaccinated workers, although it is still studying whether and how it could implement that plan, a company spokesman said.

Employers can require Covid-19 vaccines, according to guidance issued in December from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with exemptions for workers with medical conditions or religious beliefs covered under other federal laws.

Interest in mandates surged after the guidance was released but has waned since, said employment attorney John McDonald.

Working through the practicalities of how to implement and enforce such rules while respecting exempted groups has given some employers pause, he said. Also, Bills are pending in several state legislatures that aim to prohibit or limit employer vaccine policies.

Further, the emergency authorisation for the three Covid-19 vaccines being administered in the US includes a requirement that patients be informed that they have the option to refuse, adding confusion to the idea of a mandate.

"With clients I'm seeing, it's a combination of those three things that's stopping them from making it a mandatory policy," said Mr McDonald.

Instead, companies are trying to make it easy and attractive for workers to get vaccinated.

Whirlpool plans to allow employees who had their shots back to the office in its home state of Michigan over the summer as local conditions and rules allow, joining factory workers and others who could not do their jobs from home.

The home appliance maker, which has about 27,000 US workers, even began offering a US$200 (S$267) incentive for vaccination.

Follow ST on LinkedIn and stay updated on the latest career news, insights and more.