Mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations? Vermont employers don’t expect it to come to that

Published: 1/25/2021 8:37:45 PM
Modified: 1/25/2021 8:37:44 PM

Some national companies are already working to determine how their workers will be vaccinated and whether employers can require it. But in Vermont, where vaccination of the general public is months away, most managers say it’s too soon to start setting workplace policies on the vaccine. 

While many have started discussing the issue, almost all say they haven’t yet decided what guidance they’ll use with employees.

“We will ‘encourage’ for sure,” said Justin Worthley, senior vice president of human resources at Burton, which has about 400 employees in Burlington, most of them now working remotely. “We haven’t made any decisions about ‘require.’ ”

The CEO of United Airlines told CNBC Thursday that he wants to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for the airline’s 60,000 employees, and he thinks other companies should require it, too. 

Jared Carter, a Vermont Law School professor who usually focuses on constitutional law, said he has no doubt some employers will require vaccination as a condition of employment. He expects that to happen in industries where workers regularly interact with the public, such as health care, transportation and the hospitality industry.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers must provide a workplace that is safe and free from health hazards, Carter said.

“As a result, employers must institute policies that mitigate health and safety risks — including workplace-caused illnesses,” Carter said. “This may mean that some employers must require vaccination if safety necessitates it.”

However, the COVID-19 vaccines that are being used now in the U.S. haven’t received the full approval that is usually required before pharmaceutical products hit the market. For the sake of speed, they have received emergency use authorization, or EUA. Carter said he didn’t know if employers could mandate a vaccine with only that level of approval.

The state of Vermont started its vaccination program last month. The first phase of vaccination — which covers the residents of long-term care facilities and people in the health care workforce — is expected to end in late January.

The state will then start vaccinating Vermonters according to age, starting with those 75 and older this week, along with people with underlying health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the disease. 

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a virtual Vermont Chamber of Commerce meeting Jan. 13 that it will take months to get through those groups. Vermont, like many other states, hasn’t been getting as many doses of the vaccine from the federal government as it needs.

“If new vaccines are approved, it will happen a lot quicker,” Levine said. Every Vermonter who is 65 and older is expected to be vaccinated by the end of the winter.

Not everyone wants to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. A study published this year in Social Science and Medicine found that one-third of the public didn’t intend to get the vaccine because of concerns about safety and effectiveness.

A set of researchers from the University of Vermont recently concluded incentives are useful in getting people to use vaccines. Psychiatry professor Stephen Higgins, who is director of the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health, and two colleagues carried out a literature review that found “modest financial incentives resulted in a seven-fold increase in adherence compared to no incentives.”

Some national companies have already picked up on that idea. Dollar General said Jan. 13 it will reward its workers with four hours’ worth of pay to get the vaccine. Trader Joe’s is offering two hours’ pay.

Ben Clark, CEO of the Ann Clark cookie cutter company in Rutland, said he’s talked about the issue with colleagues who work in Vermont manufacturing.

“Everybody has to get vaccinated. It’s that simple,” Clark said. He hopes his employees will feel the same way when the vaccines become available. He noted that the company pays for workers’ flu shots, which are administered on-site. One-third of the workers decline. As for mandating the COVID-19 vaccine, “I’m hoping it’s a nonissue,” he said. 

Some Vermont business leaders said they are waiting to see what Gov. Phil Scott’s administration advises before making any decisions on vaccination.

“Rhino has the position that whatever the governor and Dr. Levine determine, we follow,” said Ted Castle, president of Rhino Foods in Burlington. “We have utilized the CDC guidelines throughout the pandemic. We consider them the experts.” 

Green Mountain Power spokesperson Kristin Kelly said the company would not need to make the vaccine mandatory for its 510 workers, because the company stresses safety and health. Many of the utility’s workers belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The Society for Human Resource Management says in a report on vaccine mandates that unionized employers would probably have to address any vaccine mandate in the collective bargaining process.

“We are not mandating the vaccine,” Kelly said. “Because of the culture, it’s not necessary to mandate it.”

Andrea Boggs Tursini, director of sales at High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, said the company hasn’t even discussed the matter yet, because it seems so far away. The company has about 40 people who work on-site. “If we weren’t in the middle of our busiest season ever, we might be thinking down the road, but it’s just about all we can do to keep seed moving out the door right now,” she said.

Vaccination will be one piece of a gradual return to business as usual.

“We’re looking to health officials for guidance for when and how we can return our locations back to normal, including how to make sure all of our employees and their families gain access to vaccinations, and how to enable employees, customers, suppliers and visitors to come back on-site safely, while tapering off COVID restrictions like masks and social distancing,” Worthley said.

Carter said employers will be more likely to require vaccines for specific job types, such as positions where workers must interact with vulnerable populations. He said each state will probably have its own rules when it comes to workplace vaccine requirements, as they do now with how the vaccines are being administered in the first phases.

Some workers will be able to avoid mandates if their employment contract protects them from that type of requirement, Carter said.

“But, since contracts that are contrary to public policy can sometimes be found unenforceable, it is entirely possible that during a global pandemic an employer could require vaccination despite contractual obligations on the grounds that, without vaccination, the public will be harmed,” Carter said. 

“In the context of the global pandemic, these issues have not yet been legally resolved, so it will likely fall to the courts to decide these issues moving forward.”




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