Mandatory Vaccines - Whose Needs Should Take Priority?

Carolyn V. Murray

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It was inevitable. Some people can’t get their COVID-19 fast enough. Others are determined to never take the vaccine. So, President Biden’s recent announcement that everyone over the age of eighteen who wants the vaccine will have a chance to get it by May 1st certainly doesn’t mean that everyone will jump at the chance.

The key issue that will throw a wrench in this bold timeline is accounting for those citizens who don’t want the vaccine. It’s almost certain the federal government will never issue a national mandate for it. But every individual workplace is going to be free to make that determination for their own employees. And sometimes their employees are going to say no.

The lawsuits have already begun

Twenty-one employees at a Wisconsin nursing home quit after their employer insisted that getting a COVID-19 vaccine would be required to keep their positions. Fifteen of these former employees have now hired an attorney and are threatening the nursing home with legal action.

New Mexico Detention Center officer, Isaac Legareta is suing the county manager and the detention center officials for a mandate issued in January requiring all first responders in the county to get a vaccine. His legal case will be based on the claim that “mandating employees take vaccines that are not yet fully approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration violates the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”

I don’t wish to overstate the problem – 195 out of 203 members of the detention center staff have already received their first vaccine shot or obtained a religious or health condition waiver. But that leaves eight employees, who are as potentially disgruntled as this Legareta, and who are likely to be closely watching the outcome of his lawsuit.

These lawsuits bring up the central question of whose priorities will actually take priority when profit, safety, and freedom can’t all be accommodated. Employers, employees, and customers are all going to view the issue through very different lenses.

Employers have their eyes on the bottom line

All brick-and-mortar businesses took a hard financial hit from pandemic lockdowns, not to mention airlines, cruise ships, live entertainment, sports, and concert businesses…For their economic survival, they want to open immediately, permanently, and get their customer base back to 100% as quickly as possible. How will that affect their stand on vaccinations?

There will always be exceptions, but generally employers are going to lean toward wanting their employees vaccinated. Large corporations like Ford, Target, and Dollarwise are already providing vaccine shots right on their own facilities and/or offering financial incentives to the employees who take them.

But there are going to be a number of industries that are going to make this a mandatory condition of staying in the job. Meatpacking and cruise ships come immediately to mind. But also nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and government offices, federal and state. From small cafes to large warehouses, business owners are going to want to avoid an outbreak, which would be accompanied by a temporary shutdown, bad press, and a loss of customers, as well as the possibility of lawsuits from their own employees for a failure to protect them.

Paradoxically, employers are going to be much less likely to require vaccines for their customers. They want their customers back and will be reluctant to place any restrictions on getting customers back in the store.

Employees – they don’t all want the same thing

Despite the lawsuits mentioned above, we can’t underestimate the considerable number of employees who are happy to get the vaccine and relieved to be in a workplace that requires it. Even if you are vaccinated yourself, the research on the virus is still too young to know whether an asymptomatic, vaccinated individual can carry and pass on the virus to others. It can be passed through a handshake, after all, which indicates the possibility of passing it on to others, even if you yourself are immune.

But many employees will and have refused to get the vaccine. They don’t trust how quickly it was developed and feel as if the public is being treated as guinea pigs. Some want to wait and see what the long-term results are for the vaccinated. And some, on principle, resist being told by someone else what they should put into their body.

Overall, the option that would accommodate both groups best points toward volunteering for the vaccine. But there are going to be notable exceptions, for example, the first responders. Whether it’s law enforcement, firefighting, police officers, or EMTs, there are a number of jobs where the employee comes face-to-face with the public, who they are sworn to protect and assist.

Some members of the public are going to be carrying the virus, and that’s going to be true for years to come. One responder could easily pass it on to several others in their workplace before being diagnosed. Conversely, it could be the first responder passing it on to the people they are supposed to be helping – talk about a lawsuit waiting to happen. Sure, they could wear masks, as they do now. But will they wear them forever? Because even after it’s “under control,” COVID-19 looks to be as tenacious as the yearly flu.

Customers – that just about covers us all

As a customer, vaccine mandates may sit differently with you than your feelings about it in your own workplace. You’re actually in the best position of all, with the most freedom of choice for almost any situation that requires you to be vaccinated. If you are unvaccinated or disagree with the requirement, you simply take your business elsewhere. A different store. A different hotel. A different nightclub.

In some cases, there aren’t going to be different options. You can’t go with the cruise line that doesn’t require vaccines, because there won’t be any.

So, your primary vaccine concerns as a customer won’t necessarily be the restrictions put on you, but rather, your exposure to unvaccinated individuals in the services and institutions that you rely on.

The most problematic “customer” situation will be one that was touched on earlier – being the recipient of first responder services. As well as going to public libraries or the DMV where you’ll be surrounded by public employees and a multitude of your fellow citizens. Will there be a “vaccine guard” at the entrance, requiring unmasked individuals to show their vaccine credentials?

The clear winner

If the best interests of employers, employees, and customers are at odds, the betting money should be on the employers. Yes, they’ll be sued by the employees they’ve fired for non-compliance, with vaccine mandates. But I’m pretty sure they’ll win.

For one thing, a significant percentage of jobs are at-will, meaning that you can be fired at any time for any reason. If they’re a business that deals with unvaccinated customers, it puts more pressure on them to insists that their employees have to be.

Regarding the New Mexico detention center vaccine mandate for first responders, Dona Ana County Manager Fernando Macias sent out this memo:

"As required by OSHA and in accordance with the County's duty to provide and maintain a workplace that is free of known hazards, we are adopting a mandatory Covid-19 vaccination directive to safeguard the health of our employees, their families, the customers we serve, and the community at large from this highly contagious infections disease."

Even when the employer is not financially motivated, they’re going to lean on a “do no harm” guiding principle. Between that and the needs of the American economy, I would guess that the courts are likely to support every institution’s right to require vaccines for its employees.

And in certain circumstances, for its customers as well. That means you.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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