As more employees return to the workplace, business operators are faced with deciding whether to require COVID-19 vaccinations, a tough call for many struggling to keep workers and get back to normal after a year of upheaval.
While many companies are encouraging employees to get vaccinated, most are erring on the side of personal choice and creating incentives for workers to go get inoculated.
Although COVID-19 vaccinations now are widely available to people age 12 and older, many residents both in Galveston County and across the country have been hesitant or opposed to getting the shots.
Despite that hesitancy, some companies still are requiring employees to be vaccinated.
This week, Houston Methodist suspended about 200 employees for failing to follow a vaccination mandate after dozens of workers protested the policy Monday.
Major companies such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have said they would require new hires to get vaccinated.
Still more, such as Amazon, Amtrak and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, are offering bonuses, extra paid hours or other incentives to encourage employees to get vaccinated.
Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed into law a provision banning Texas businesses from requiring customers to present vaccination information. The new law doesn’t address requiring employees to be vaccinated, however.
Businesses have been walking a tightrope since March 2020, facing backlash from customers over masking requirements as face coverings became more common, then again this spring as increasing vaccination rates prompted a decline in mask mandates.
Like requiring masks, vaccination mandates from employers have become a flashpoint, said Mike Dean, owner of several island restaurants including Yaga’s Cafe, 2314 Strand.
Dean approached the question by incentivizing vaccinations, he said.
Employees who got vaccinated before March 31 received a $40 bonus. But after March 31, employees who had to quarantine from contracting COVID-19 weren’t offered paid leave, he said.
“If you choose not to, that’s your choice,” Dean said.
American National Insurance Co. also isn’t requiring vaccinations, CEO James Pozzi said.
Vaccinated employees don’t need to mask or social distance anymore but unvaccinated employees do, and the company reserves the right to ask its workforce about vaccination status, he said.
Pozzi didn’t know how many employees had been vaccinated, he said.
“We really haven’t even tried to find out,” Pozzi said.
Other major employers in Galveston County are taking similar approaches.
Kroger announced in February it would pay $100 to employees who got vaccinated. Walmart offered a $75 bonus.
Gulf Copper also isn’t requiring its 500 employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but those who are don’t have to wear masks or get temperature checks daily, said Jonathan Hale, vice president of marine services.
“If an employee doesn’t wish to get vaccinated, that’s their business,” Hale said, but Gulf Copper is encouraging employees to get vaccinated.
More vaccinated employees mean fewer chances of someone contracting COVID-19 and having to quarantine, which means schedule changes for the company, he said.
“We do actively advise employees to get vaccinated,” Hale said. “It makes it easier all around.”
‘WE CAN ALWAYS EXPECT LAWSUITS’
Federal employment laws don’t prevent employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as long as the business provides reasonable accommodation, according to a May report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Accommodations could be for an employee who has a disability or religious belief, according to the report.
Employers should be aware that a vaccination requirement could mean needing to respond to allegations that the policy has a disparate impact on some employees based on race, religion or other factors, according to the report.
But the commission is clear that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, said Valerie Gutmann Koch, assistant professor of law and co-director of the Health Law & Policy Institute at the University of Houston.
“We can always expect lawsuits,” Gutmann Koch said. “Whether employees would actually win is another story. Any argument they might have for their rights being violated is pretty slim.”
And there’s a precedent for that, especially in the health care setting, she said. It’s not uncommon for hospitals to require their workers to get flu shots, she said.
However, employers may be hesitant to mandate vaccinations because of the ramifications of enforcing such a policy, Gutmann Koch said.
“If you’re going to set a mandate, it has to apply equally to all of your employees,” Gutmann Koch said. “If you have an employee that’s really valuable to your business and that’s the one hold-out employee refusing vaccination, you’re kind of stuck terminating them.”
Requiring vaccines can set up a company for criticism or costly litigation, but not requiring them — and going the incentive route instead — could open up other employees to health risks, she said.
Whether the incentives work is another story.
New federal guidance allowing vaccinated people to remove their masks seemed to encourage people to get a vaccine more than any incentives Dean had offered, he said.
“I told all my employees, ‘If you’re vaccinated, take your mask off,’ and that worked more than the $40,” Dean said.