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Private Employers Wrestle With Trying To Vaccinate Their Workforce


Is your job requiring you to get a COVID vaccine shot? It's a big question for workers and for their bosses as many return to the physical workspace. Yesterday, President Biden said federal workers will have to disclose their vaccination status or face testing and mandatory masks. NPR consumer health correspondent Yuki Noguchi asked what other employers are doing. And she's on the line. Good morning.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Yuki, what are you hearing from employers?

NOGUCHI: Well, that it's a real headache dealing with this stuff. Michael Schmidt is a New York employment lawyer. And he says it is legal to mandate vaccination. But that's not an employer's only concern.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: This has been an extremely toxic topic, an extremely emotional - you know, whether it's political reasons, whether it's personal health reasons, whether it's philosophical reasons almost doesn't matter. It's been a highly charged topic.

NOGUCHI: You know, recently, employers like Uber and Google said they'll require vaccination of their workers. Netflix will as well for its U.S.-based cast and crews. And airlines like Delta and United will require it of new employees. But, you know, vaccine mandates are still the exception. A large majority of business employers, roughly three-quarters in the surveys I've seen, have not yet embraced mandates. But a lot is changing, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'm fascinated by the idea that Delta and United would require it of new employees. I guess that's because existing employees have certain union rights. And there might be some people that want to uphold those rights. But where is public opinion on mandates?

NOGUCHI: Well, that also is - seems to be shifting. A new 50-state survey out today from the COVID States Project, a group of university researchers, shows an increasing majority of workers - up to 70% depending on the state - support the concept of governments making these shots mandatory. But, of course, some people are opposed to both vaccines and mandates. And this latest survey estimates they make up about 15 to 20% of the eligible population.

INSKEEP: What's the alternative to a mandate if you're an employer?

NOGUCHI: Well, a range of things, some of which we've already seen from businesses and government - paid time off to get shots, worksite vaccinations, cash prizes like gift cards or raffles.

INSKEEP: Do those things work?

NOGUCHI: Well, they're less effective as time goes on because it's increasingly harder to motivate people who are still unvaccinated. Jeff Levin-Scherz is an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health and a business consultant. He estimates a $100 reward, which is what President Biden is offering to the newly vaccinated, could spur an additional four to 5% of workers to get their shots.

JEFF LEVIN-SCHERZ: You're paying 2,000 to $2,500 for every incremental vaccine. And the only question is, could you have spent those resources in a different way and got more than one additional person vaccinated?

NOGUCHI: In other words, Steve, it's getting harder to move the needle among those already set against vaccination.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the options, then?

NOGUCHI: Well, that's just it - I mean, employers do have legal obligations to provide a safe workplace. And that's why Levin-Scherz says he thinks employers will likely get tougher on workers as time goes on.

LEVIN-SCHERZ: We want to make it very convenient for people to get vaccinated. But over time, we want to make it increasingly inconvenient for people not to be vaccinated.

NOGUCHI: You know, he's talking about escalating punitive measures. Those might range from requiring weekly testing of unvaccinated employees, like the federal government is talking about doing, charging unvaccinated people higher health premiums, keeping them from coming back into the office or just firing them. But again, these are agonizing choices for the people having to make and enforce these policies because they're dealing with workers with strongly held views on opposite ends of the spectrum. And it's a really tough job market. So employers really don't - you know, they can't afford to alienate either side and then risk these employees leaving their company.

INSKEEP: Employees have some leverage. Yuki, thanks so much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.