By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – If you’re a business owner wondering if you can require employees to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, the answer is a qualified “yes.”
Whether it makes sense to enact workplace mandates is a different question, and one made harder to answer by uneven vaccine distribution and delivery in some parts of the country – Wisconsin included.
The federal Equal Opportunities Commission has ruled that employers can require workers to get vaccinated as a condition of going to work. However, those same employers must be prepared to exempt employees with disabilities and religious objections. In such cases, an employer must offer a reasonable “accommodation” to the employee – such as working remotely or being reassigned – so long as that accommodation doesn’t cause “undue hardship” for the employer.
That seems simple enough on its face, but not all employers are created equal in Wisconsin or elsewhere.
Large companies with plants in multiple states might approach a vaccine mandate one way; Mom and Pop on Main Street may take a looser view. Some employers will encourage employee buy-in and keep it strictly voluntary. Others don’t want the legal risk of employees claiming, “I caught COVID at work,” and will require vaccines as soon as possible.
Location in a high-COVID area, union rules, the number of “public-facing” workers and the type of business sector in which the company is engaged can all make a difference, too.
Here’s one factor that should be a constant for all businesses weighing vaccine mandates: The two federally approved vaccines on the market today are safe and effective.
Voting two weeks ago, 49 directors of the Wisconsin Technology Council passed a resolution urging the broadest possible adoption of COVID vaccines in the state. The directors went one step further to underscore their confidence in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine: They pledged to get vaccinated when their number comes up. [Click here to read the resolution.]
Some of those directors help to run companies, laboratories and health systems on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight. They brought scientific expertise – and even some healthy initial skepticism – to their internal reviews of vaccine development.
In the end, however, they concluded the vaccines approved for emergency use by the federal Food and Drug Administration “were developed with customary clinical trial enrollments; all stages of clinical trials were carefully executed with proper oversight; and effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 was determined to be 90 to 95 percent.”
Their statement added that “while vaccines and pharmaceuticals have some reported adverse events, serious adverse events have been rare and treatable after millions of doses administered. Clinically proven benefits greatly outweigh the risks. Vaccines cannot help if they remain inside vials and are not put to work in human bodies.”
The Tech Council board boasts its fair share of scientists and medical professionals, but it also includes business leaders from other types of companies, large and small. They all recognized the value of vaccines in getting the still-sluggish economy back on its feet.
“Widespread COVID-19 vaccination will greatly enhance economic recovery. Public confidence will be restored; businesses of all types can get back to business; and many jobs sidelined by the virus may return,” it read.
Citing its “high confidence” in the pre-clinical and clinical tests leading to the FDA’s multi-step vaccine approvals, the Tech Council board recommended “as many Wisconsin citizens as possible become vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus as soon as possible under priority guidelines and as advised by their personal physician.”
The statement also urged that Wisconsin’s elective bodies “adopt no legislation or make any collective statements that would serve to undermine the public’s confidence in the science behind the safety and effectiveness of FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines.” People with an anti-science agenda will still say irresponsible things, but let’s hope reason carries the day.
Businesses are free to make separate decisions about requiring workers to be vaccinated, which is as it should be. Whatever they decide, however, business executives can take comfort in the fact they’re not asking employees to take a chance. Rather, they are asking them to avoid a huge risk.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.