President Biden’s vaccine mandates have quickly become a political flashpoint, with the requirement for private-sector businesses of over 100 employees making for especially dramatic headlines. But while the vaccine mandate could affect over 60% of the national workforce if implemented, in reality it applies to less than 2% of US companies. And for many within that 2%, Biden’s requirement actually lags policies the companies have already set themselves.
Vaccine requirements have a long history in the United States, famously predating the country’s founding to when George Washington required smallpox vaccination in the Continental Army. Smallpox vaccination requirements remained common among employers throughout the 19th century; in 1905 and again in 1922 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of vaccine mandates. Today, all 50 states require vaccines for schoolchildren (although medical and religious exemptions are typically allowed). And in May of this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave clear guidance that companies could require vaccination, again with provisions for medical and religious exemptions.
Historical and legal precedent aside, the case for corporate vaccine mandates is undeniably compelling. By the time of Biden’s announcement, federal research had confirmed that unvaccinated Americans are 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated. Even before the pandemic, the United States already suffered from an epidemic of “presenteeism,” in which employees who came to work sick cost the national economy an estimated $234 billion in inflation-adjusted lost productivity. For companies considering vaccination requirements for employees, social good and profit could hardly be more closely aligned.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, some of the largest companies in the US began issuing their own mandates well before the federal government stepped in. The tech sector helped lead the way, with companies like Google (which extended its work-from-home policy until October 18) requiring all employees to be vaccinated before returning to the office. Salesforce, Cisco, Microsoft, Netflix and Uber have set similar policies, while others such as Facebook and Lyft have additionally postponed their return-to-office dates to early 2022.
Several airlines, including United, Frontier, Delta and Hawaiian, were also early to issue vaccine mandates, clearly anxious to show customers that flying could be as safe as possible. Companies that produce vaccines have also set an example, with Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson all requiring vaccinations (or, in the case of Pfizer, a weekly COVID testing requirement as the alternative).
Other companies have mixed in different kinds of mandates, and incentives. Ford reimplemented a mask mandate for all employees in August, and also requires vaccinations for all employees traveling internationally for business. Banks including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs will require both vaccines and masks for workers returning to the office. Several companies are offering bonuses to employees who get vaccinated, from $50 and an extra PTO day at American Airlines, to hundreds of dollars at food industry companies like Kroger, Lidl, Publix and Bolthouse Farms, to a $1,000 bonus at Vanguard. Replacing the carrot with the stick, the NFL is fining unvaccinated athletes $15,000 for every pandemic-related safety infraction.
These examples help illustrate why the Business Roundtable has come out in support of Biden’s vaccine mandates, and why even the US Chamber of Commerce requires anyone entering its headquarters to be vaccinated. For the corporate world, the risk of alienating or even letting go of a minority of unvaccinated employees or customers pales in comparison to the health risks that unvaccinated employees pose to the workforce at large, not to mention the lost productivity that would attend serious outbreaks in the workplace.