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Employer vaccine mandates? It’s complicated. ‘Once you do that, you can’t look back’

At Imperial Distributors in Worcester, CEO Michael Sleeper routinely walks the warehouse floor to talk up vaccinations.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Kevin Smith didn’t think it would be this hard, convincing all of his workers to get vaccinated.

Since January, he has been on a mission, giving people paid time off just to learn about COVID-19 vaccines and organizing pop-up clinics where workers can get shots. But Smith, chief executive of Best of Care, a Quincy-based home-health provider, can’t seem to move the needle much further beyond getting 52 percent of his 329 aides vaccinated.

Smith has thought about mandating COVID vaccines, an idea gaining traction among prominent employers like Google, Facebook, and HubSpot. Boston-based State Street Financial Corp. said Wednesday that, starting in mid-September, it will require all employees entering its buildings in the US to be fully vaccinated. The Boch Center, which operates downtown Boston’s Wang and Shubert Theaters, also announced a vaccine mandate for employees and vendors (though not patrons).


But for a small business owner facing an unprecedented labor shortage in his industry, a mandate doesn’t feel like a viable option. Smith, if he could find the people, would hire another 100 aides tomorrow.

“We don’t have the luxury of trying to tell people, ‘Hey, get the vaccine or you’re not going to work here,’ ” said Smith. “There would not be enough workers to meet the need.”

That doesn’t mean he’s against a mandate. In fact, he would support one from the government because if all health aides had to be vaccinated, that wouldn’t put his company at a competitive disadvantage. But going it alone? Too risky.

“A mandate is a line in the sand,” Smith said. “Once you do that, you can’t look back.”

Absent sweeping directives from federal, state or local governments, private sector companies have been left to figure vaccine requirements out on their own. A baffling patchwork has emerged, in which companies with white-collar workforces — who are already largely vaccinated and often work from home — are implementing mandates, while businesses with blue-collar workers who can’t work from home mostly are not. The result: Workers who may most be affected by a vaccine requirement are the ones least likely to have one.


Sometimes the split emerges within the same company. Walmart, for example, is requiring corporate staff and managers to be vaccinated but not store employees, who make up the bulk of its workforce; similarly, Uber Technologies is asking US corporate staff returning to the office to be vaccinated but not its drivers. Tyson Foods has been among the notable exceptions in mandating the COVID vaccine for its entire workforce. Currently, just under half of its employees are vaccinated.

A recent poll by MassInc Polling Group indicated that 75 percent of employed Massachusetts residents at least somewhat support their own company requiring vaccinations against COVID-19. Just 21 percent said they’re opposed.

In Massachusetts, mandates have caught on at hospitals and colleges, as well as some restaurants for patrons and staff, but by and large, bosses would rather play vaccine evangelist and try to convert the hesitant than force jabs on employees.

That has been the strategy at Imperial Distributors in Worcester, where chief executive Michael Sleeper and his human resources staff routinely walk the warehouse floor to talk up COVID safety and the virtues of vaccinations.

Of its 360 workers in Worcester, Sleeper sees a higher vaccination rate among his administrative staff — close to 95 percent compared to about 71 percent of its distribution center workers. Imperial was able to raise its vaccination rate significantly after operating an on-site clinic in April that dispensed the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine; in four hours about 160 employees got immunized. The company plans to run another on-site clinic at the end of the month.


Sleeper likes to remind unvaccinated workers just how easy it is to get shots: At any time, they can just walk across the street to the Walmart pharmacy. The messaging can be hard to ignore: The company plays videos in a running loop on 70-inch TV screens in the cafeteria on the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s a delicate balance,” said Sleeper. “When people feel like they are being pushed into something they don’t want to do, that’s inviting them to leave the company. We want to keep our people.”

Pro-vaccine employers have heard the concerns of their hesitant workers: They’re worried about long-term side effects. They don’t understand the mRNA technology in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. They’re waiting for the Food and Drug Administration to fully authorize COVID vaccines, not just for emergency use. They don’t trust the government.

Helen Adeosun, founder and chief executive of CareAcademy, a Boston company that provides online training for caregivers, said employers are moving into a new phase of converting the unvaccinated. Her advice: Enlist work peers to vouch for the vaccines and strive to address an individual’s specific questions and concerns.


“Now we are in the throes of moving folks who are highly resistant,” said Adeosun, whose company provides online education on vaccines. “It is about having ambassadors.”

Jim Knott, chief executive of Riverdale Mills in Northbridge, is not in favor of mandating vaccines. He estimates about 70 percent of his 125 employees are vaccinated, and they can easily social distance in the company’s 400,000-square-foot factory, which makes wire mesh used to construct lobster traps and security fences.

“I don’t think it’s our job to order people to get vaccinated,” said Knott. “People should be allowed to make their own choices.”

Knott, who is vaccinated and walks the factory floor regularly to talk to workers, said the hesitation is real. The unvaccinated wonder if the vaccines can give them Alzheimer’s disease, for example; some question why they need a vaccine if they are healthy. All Knott can do is educate workers about the benefits.

“Maybe if you didn’t call it a vaccination,” said Knott, “people would have signed up quicker.”

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at