Many Massachusetts companies are not ready to require their employees to be vaccinated, even as the fast-spreading Delta variant prompts some governments to impose vaccine mandates among their workforces and mask-wearing is again recommended for some indoor spaces.
However, experts say that could soon change with infections increasing even in highly vaccinated locations such as Massachusetts, and full regulatory approval of the current COVID-19 vaccines likely just weeks away.
Thus far, employers typically have encouraged their workers to get vaccinated, in some cases offering incentives such as bonuses and paid time off. However, requiring vaccinations in the workplace remains more the exception than the rule.
But the drumbeat for such mandates is getting louder. On Thursday, President Biden is expected to announce that civilian employees of the US government must be vaccinated or undergo frequent testing, while the states of California and New York, as well as the city of New York, recently issued similar requirements. (In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has no plans to mandate vaccines for state executive branch employees.)
And on Wednesday, Google — with nearly 140,000 employees, including about 2,000 in Massachusetts — became one of the biggest private sector companies to mandate vaccines, saying it will require workers returning to its offices this fall to be vaccinated.
For some employers, a mandate was a no-brainer.
“Either you accommodate the vast majority of your employees who want the safest environment possible, or accommodate the employees who don’t want to get vaccinated,” said Bob Bodian, managing partner of prominent Boston law firm Mintz. “That was an easy call for me.”
The firm’s 1,200 attorneys and staff — about half based in Boston — must have proof of vaccination by Sept. 13, when people are expected to return to the office in a hybrid model. Clients and others who visit the firm’s offices will also need to prove they are fully vaccinated.
Bodian, who announced the policy in June, said about 90 percent of Mintz attorneys are vaccinated, and he isn’t aware of anyone who has quit rather than get the vaccine. Exemptions are allowed for medical or religious reasons.
“We’re not trying to punish anybody or proselytize,” he said. “We are trying to have a safe and healthy environment.”
Brian Richichi, an employment litigator at Boston law firm Krokidas & Bluestein, who has been advising clients on COVID-related issues, said companies have started to reexamine whether a voluntary vaccination policy will be enough to keep the workplace safe if the country goes through another surge in the fall. There’s also concern about how long vaccines offer protection from the virus with many people receiving their shots in the spring.
“There has been a big shift in the last few weeks,” said Richichi, who predicted that by the fall there will be a “large uptick” in the number of employers mandating vaccines.
Among the factors at play: protecting not only their employees from infection, but the population at large, since continued spread of the disease risks bringing back restrictions and shutdowns.
“Once you have brought people back, there is going to be a real resistance to going back to remote after just a few months,” said Richichi.
A turning point could come when the Food and Drug Administration provides full authorization of COVID-19 vaccines, a move that will make more employers comfortable implementing mandates. Currently, the vaccines are approved for emergency use only.
In an interview Wednesday on National Public Radio, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, said he expects a full approval from the FDA soon and more widespread mandates to follow.
“Once these get fully licensed though, which is probably in short order, I do think you’re probably going to see more businesses step in and mandate vaccines within the workplace,” Gottlieb told NPR.
Still, vaccine mandates remain a sensitive topic among employers who are worried about everything from medical privacy to hiring in a tight labor market, to wading into a political minefield. Some companies declined to speak publicly about it, while others prefer to let employees make their own choice. Large Boston-area employers, from TJX Companies to CVS Health to Stop & Shop, say they’re monitoring developments and urging vaccinations, but not yet requiring them.
In Massachusetts, vaccine mandates have primarily been rolled out in two sectors: health care and higher education. In June, four hospital systems — including the two largest, Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey Health — announced they are requiring their 135,000 employees get vaccinated once the FDA fully authorizes a COVID vaccine, though they’ll allow exemptions on medical or religious grounds.
Many colleges and universities have ordered students to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus, but a growing number of private institutions are also requiring faculty and staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. According to tally by the Boston Business Journal, at least 22 Massachusetts colleges and universities, including Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Amherst College, Smith College, and Williams College, have set deadlines for proof of vaccination before the fall semester begins.
At MIT, for example, all students and employees who want to be on campus are required to submit a copy of their official vaccination record, or receive an exemption by July 30.
Out of roughly 23,000 students and employees at MIT’s Cambridge campus, about 89 percent, or nearly 20,500, have provided proof of vaccination, the university said. Of the remaining 2,500 people, about 1,000 have reported they are on their way to getting fully vaccinated; about 450 students and employees have requested exemptions.
Public academic institutions in Massachusetts have been slower to require vaccine mandates for faculty and staff, in part because of the challenges dealing with a large number of unionized employees.
At the University of Massachusetts, president Marty Meehan said he has been trying to reach an agreement with unions to pave the way for a vaccine mandate for the system’s 24,000 employees.
“My firm position is that every student and every employee should be vaccinated. I believe we should require it, not encourage it,” said Meehan. “We have collective bargaining issues, and we’re working on our campuses with our unions to get a consensus on this.”
Some unions have opposed vaccine mandates, but at the same time say they strongly support vaccinations. That has been the case at Stop & Shop, where unionized grocery workers worked closely with management to get vaccinations, by operating on-site clinics, providing transportation, and offering paid time off for shots.
“I don’t think workers should be forced to be vaccinated,” said Fernando Lemus, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, which represents about 8,000 Stop & Shop workers.
But, Lemus said, his members have been eager to get their shots, though he does not know what percentage of UCFW members have been vaccinated. High vaccination rates can be achieved, he added, if companies put in the work.
“I believe it can be accomplished on a voluntary basis,” said Lemus, but “employers have to embrace it.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.