Are retailers facing a no-win decision in mandating vaccines for workers?

Photo: RetailWire
Dec 16, 2020

Surveys continue to show that between 40 and 50 percent of Americans are reluctant to take the coronavirus vaccine, likely including many of retail’s frontline workers.

Black Americans, people living in rural areas and Republicans are being found to be more hesitant about getting the shots.

Unfortunately, experts say that until the country reaches herd immunity (minimum 70 percent vaccination rate), outbreaks remain a threat, masks and social distancing will be urged, and any economic recovery will be restrained.

One option employers are privately exploring to speed the inoculation process is making masks mandatory for employees. With exceptions for disabilities or religious beliefs in some cases, vaccinations can be required for employees for such a threat.

Writing for the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin said, in addition to showing leadership in helping to end the deadly pandemic, establishing a fully-vaccinated staff could be a competitive advantage. He wrote, “A service like Uber, for example, would be more attractive to customers if the company said that all of its drivers were vaccinated. The same could be said for Walmart, Starbucks or any other store or restaurant.”

For employees, coming to work would feel safer if all co-workers were vaccinated.

Beyond any personal freedom debates involved with mask mandates, however, huge concerns continue over the long-term side effects of the vaccines. Further, experts say people who have been vaccinated may still be able to carry the virus and spread it to others. Making vaccines compulsory may become a public relations nightmare.

For now, Crain’s Chicago Business found that even hospitals are making vaccinations voluntary despite flu shots being mandatory. A CNBC article noted that employers are considering using incentives, such as requiring fewer PPE requirements and temperature checks as well as giving financial perks, to drive compliance.

Most Americans won’t have access to the vaccine for several months, but the major retailer and restaurant trade groups are arguing their front line workers should receive early access.

“The CDC has made it clear that health care workers will be among the first to receive the vaccine, and that should include retail-level pharmacy workers, especially since they will play an important role in delivering the vaccine,” David French, NRFs SVP for government relations, told The Hill. “Groceries are also critical, so those workers should also be near the top of the list.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should retailers recommend, strongly encourage or compel employees to take the coronavirus vaccine? Can retailers that mandate worker vaccinations avoid PR controversies?

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35 Comments on "Are retailers facing a no-win decision in mandating vaccines for workers?"

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Neil Saunders

I would be quite happy to take the vaccine myself and I would recommend that others do the same. However I would be extremely uncomfortable with anyone being forced to take it against their will. In some cases, retail employers may be able, legally, to mandate that their staff take it as a condition of continued employment. That said, I doubt this would be well received.

Mark Ryski

If we replaced COVID-19 with measles or leprosy, how would we answer the question? Vaccinations would be a no-brainer (or it should be). Retailers should strongly encourage employees to take the vaccine as this isn’t just about the rights of employees, it’s also about the rights of the other employees and the public at large. Employers cannot force an employee to take a vaccine (or do anything), but they can make it a condition of their employment and, with over 300,000 deaths in America (and counting), the answer should be obvious. If an employee had the potential to spread measles, would you allow them to work? I doubt it.

Xavier Lederer

Vaccination should be a no-brainer indeed — and yet, only 50% of the adult population is vaccinated against the flu on average, which is a pretty common, affordable, and very low-risk vaccine. By comparison vaccinating 70% of the population against Covid will be a long, uphill battle. Making it mandatory for retail employees would be pretty challenging.

Bob Amster

Strongly encourage. We have a similar situation in public schools, where schools demand certain vaccines and some parents object. However this is not about schools, it’s is about the work environment, where the employer can dictate the dress code — which does not put anyone’s life at risk, whether followed or not. Does it all have to be decided in the courts?

Ralph Jacobson

Retailers can make strong recommendations to staff to get vaccinated however mandates are not the way to go, in my view, for multiple reasons. Those reasons include the fact that normal influenza vaccines are never required (nor other infectious disease vaccines), the potential for side effects of the vaccine for which the retailer may be held responsible, and staff’s personal objections to vaccines in general, such as from those whom do not vaccinate their children, etc.

Ben Ball

Retailers in the strongest position will be those who follow existing policies on vaccination. If they require flu vaccines they should be able to require COVID-19 vaccines. If they have exceptions, the same basis for exceptions should apply. Staying consistent with current policy will provide the strongest P.R. cover. Having said that, I can’t recall any illness or vaccine being politicized beyond some fringe religious objections or medical conditions. Touting “100 percent of our employees are vaccinated” is more likely to be an open invitation to criticism than a net positive, at least initially. Allowing employees who choose vaccination to display some sort of “badge” similar to the “I voted today” buttons might be a way to let employees like retail workers, health care workers and restaurant employees say “I care about you and I want to be able to safely serve you. Welcome back!” That could encourage wary patrons to return to establishments in a very positive way.

David Leibowitz

Encourage? Yes. Mandatory? Not likely. That’s not how it works in the U.S.

Though vaccinations may be required in healthcare settings, some states mandate that hospital workers get certain vaccinations. Outside of that, proof of vaccination (measles, etc.) for other diseases is typically only for school registrations. I’m no attorney, but I’m pretty sure that’s a non-starter as a private industry requirement.

Cathy Hotka

We won’t have to address this question for some time, given the scarcity of the vaccine now. After it is widely available, and we have a better idea of Americans’ willingness to take it, retailers can use their judgement about how best to protect associates and customers alike.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 7 months ago

Strongly encourage. I do not think anyone should be forced to take the vaccine. I would think most companies would also strongly encourage the vaccine as well for their employees and would likely cover any cost incurred with the vaccine.

Adrian Weidmann

Freedom of choice is a fundamental right here in the U.S. That said, there is a concern when someone’s choice adversely affects my right to live safely – as stated in the Declaration of Independence – “…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There is no doubt that if and when a retailer can assure, and actively promote to, their shoppers and customers that all their associates have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, that this will provide tremendous confidence to their shoppers and their brand.

Joel Rubinson

Whle I usually err on the side of personal liberty, in this case, I think the vaccine should be as mandatory as the polio vaccine. This economy will NEVER be completely open again as long as one person is getting sick since one leads to one million, as we have seen. Working the contagion models, it takes about 70 percent for herd immunity. As a nation, we are unable to handle 5 percent (yes, that is all it is) and the problem is not just our reaction, it is that hospitals are getting maxed out again which means elective (but important) surgery is being throttled again. I think the vaccine is the only hope for this country to not be utterly anxiety ridden.

Lee Peterson

Really? I’d pull a Tom Cruise and make sure everyone got inoculated or worked somewhere else. If you want to get sick that’s your business, but since customers are the life blood of retail, potentially exposing them is not an option — and that’s my business.

I just read that the disinformation machine has quickly shifted from election fraud to vaccine horror stories. Excellent. But if you roll with all that stuff, I’d suggest you don’t work somewhere where your beliefs can potentially harm the public and the business you’re hopefully trying to progress. Just stay home.

Gene Detroyer

So, what do you do if an employee refuses to be vaccinated? Fire them?

Paula Rosenblum

Generally I don’t think I care if others take the vaccine as long as I do, but I think retailers are facing lawsuits if someone catches COVID-19 in their stores or DCs. So my opinion is — yes.

Ryan Mathews

Reincarnations ago when I was a bartender I was required by the Board of Health to stay current with my tetanus shots. I didn’t like it, but my employer demanded it. Did I have a right to refuse? Sure, if I wanted to get another job. This isn’t a political issue, it’s a matter of public health. If half the country opts out of vaccination for whatever reasons, we will be wrestling with COVID-19 for decades.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

There is no such thing as a vaccine without side effects. The entire anti-science narrative has undermined that discipline’s credibility in advancing meaningful solutions to problems facing society. Sadly, retailers must walk a fine line of providing a safe environment for their customers and employees while being ultra-aware of each community’s concerns and sensitivities. Blanket mandates will backfire, yet that is what’s needed to escape the horrific accelerating caseloads and regain sustainable and vibrant store traffic.

Dr. Stephen Needel

When the vaccine is available to its employees, require it. It’s a pandemic. But make sure it’s available to all before requiring.

Harley Feldman

There is logic to inoculating retail workers early on due to their contacts with shoppers. On the other hand, there are many workers who have contact with the public every day. It will be difficult to sort out the order of who gets vaccines. For example, should someone that is older with comorbidities not get the vaccine over much younger retail workers? Retailers should work to raise the priority of their workers but not force their employees to take the vaccine. Retailers that do force vaccinations will have a PR disaster on their hand. As more and more people are safely vaccinated, more employees will be interested but no one should be forced. A year from now, the COVID-19 vaccinations will be as acceptable as flu shots.

Bob Phibbs

I do believe vaccines should be mandated if it is allowed by law. Then I would promote the heck out of it.

I would turn your question on its side: Can retailers that don’t mandate worker vaccinations avoid PR controversies? We’ll have months to figure this out but I don’t see how “only if they want to” will make nervous shoppers happy. Mandate it, give time off for it, pay for it, celebrate it – that’s my advice.

Jeff Sward

I don’t see this as a matter of choice in allowing people to knowingly endanger the health of others, not when the health care system is maxing out on its ability to handle the case load. So maybe it’s mandatory in the short term until the case load and other public metrics stabilize. And a year from now we re-evaluate. The countries that acted fast and hard are now normalizing quickly. The U.S. wasn’t willing to behave in the same manner so now we are relying on the vaccines to bail us out. And now people who didn’t want to mask up also don’t want to get a vaccine?

Ed Rosenbaum

Personally I am planning to take the vaccine. But I do not think it is something that can be mandated. No matter what the topic these days; it seems to turn political which is wrong. The vaccine is here to help us stay alive to see our grandchildren grow into adulthood. I will say I will feel uncomfortable being around someone who refuses this vaccine because of its life-saving effect. My opinion only.

Ricardo Belmar

I don’t believe retailers will have the full legal standing they need to compel employees to take the vaccine, but in many cases they can make vaccination a condition for employment. Hopefully, as more people are vaccinated, those with concerns about the side effects will have more information available so they feel better about the decision to take the vaccine. Retailers also need to be concerned about legal issues if someone becomes infected in their store, distribution center, or fulfillment center because employees were not vaccinated. All of these factors should go into the decision process for retailers to determine what their vaccination policy will be.

Peter Charness

I’d shop first in a store that was clean, required masks, and promoted all employees being vaccinated. Mandatory? That’s a hard one, but you know what’s harder? Overloaded hospitals and thousands dying every day. I know a vaccine isn’t the same as “you have to wear your seatbelt if you want to drive in public,” but it’s not that big of an ask. I think in three months when vaccines become available, and IF the side effects are as minimal as projected, then mandatory vaccination will be a necessary minor infringement on our individual rights to walk around spreading COVID-19.