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

Discussion
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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
Guest

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
Guest

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 5 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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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
Guest

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
BrainTrust

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
BrainTrust

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.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I expect one of the decision factors for retailers is whether Congress passes liability protection for companies and, if it does, what the details of the legislation are. If a company does require the vaccine, it should cover the cost of the vaccination even if its medical plan does not.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

We need to start thinking like a society again but that takes the leadership of companies — both to protect employees and to protect customers.

Yes retailers should mandate worker vaccination. So, too, should local and state governments.

Evan Snively
BrainTrust
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
1 year 5 months ago

“For employees, coming to work would feel safer if all co-workers were vaccinated.”
This sentence initially made me feel good, but then the next more likely scenario I see happening in reality is that there will be very tense rifts between those who take the vaccine and those who resist. This will be an office culture issue (especially if in person) that employers and managers will have to navigate very carefully.

VeeCee
Guest
I work as a Prime Grocery Shopper for Whole Foods, and I will NOT get the vaccine until it has been around for a while, and more information is released. I have severe allergies to a lot of medications, including flu shots. The few times I did get the flu shot, I ended up in the hospital with anaphylaxis. I am very concerned that I will have a similar, if not worse, reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m even allergic to Advil! With that said, I do the best I can to ensure my safety, and the safety of my coworkers and customers. I wear two face masks, and I stay as far away from others as possible, but often do find myself close to others in my crowded grocery store because I have no alternative. I wash my hands excessively, and frequently sanitize items that I use at work. I go to work and shop for my own groceries, and do nothing else that requires public interaction. If my employer mandates that I am… Read more »
Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

VeeCee puts some of the problem in a real context. The vaccine(s) haven’t yet been time tested and side effects, allergies, and more can contribute to a string of problems for individuals. Mandating the vaccine without exceptions or alternative measures makes no sense. Add to that the fact that most people will drop their guard on masks and other protections, this won’t be as simple as it seems. Distribution for the vaccines can have different effects (Pfizer, Moderna, etc), and the vaccine doesn’t guarantee immunity. We would love the panacea, but it doesn’t work that way. There is no simple answer and this sounds like a question for health care professionals, epidemiologists, and social scientists — not retail experts.

storewanderer
Guest
1 year 5 months ago

And this is going to take more time to determine what the best path forward is. Already we are hearing this vaccine will need multiple “boosters” to actually work? How many boosters? How often? This not like a simple flu shot where you get everyone the COVID Vaccine one time (a year?) and we cure the pandemic, it is not that simple … there are a lot of unanswered questions.

My biggest fear is there are bad side effects with the vaccine that do not become known until it is given in mass, we vaccinate the healthcare workers in mass first, many experience negative side effects, and we end up with an even greater shortage of healthcare workers than we already have.

David Adelman
Guest

Definitely! This disease is not only killing millions around the world but will continue to stymie all economies until we get it under control.

This is a pandemic, not just some cold virus. It’s severe and deadly. Everyone should be doing their part to eliminate this nasty virus by getting the vaccine, wearing masks, and social distancing.

As a business owner, employees should be given the option but employers should also have the option of letting these employees go if they don’t participate.

It’s the short term. Get over yourselves people and do your part for the betterment of the world and our global economy. If we don’t, I’m afraid Covid will continue to spread much longer than necessary.

Can our economies and retail businesses withstand a prolonged pandemic when we have a cure staring us right in the face? Many won’t, I’m afraid.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

I don’t see being able to enforce vaccination on condition for employment for retail. A health care setting is different than customer service in retail. Certainly employers can strongly recommend and also should subsidize the shot through the health care offering.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Let’s answer the easy question first. Yes, it’s a no win. So the question is really how to make the “loss” is as small as possible.

One option of course is to try to deflect: encourage laws that mandate people be vaccinated (at least for positions with high public contact). Failing at that, then industries themselves should try to set a standard. But I think trying to turn this into a “competitive advantage” situation is a mistake; and I think avoiding liability will — or should — overwhelm “PR” concerns.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

Simple solution that will never be mandated. No one should be required to take the vaccine but if you have not had a vaccine shot and you come down with COVID, you would have to cover your own medical cost.

storewanderer
Guest
1 year 5 months ago

I don’t expect retailers or any other employers to mandate this vaccine for employees at this time. Maybe at some point in the future, but not at this time. As for when is some point in the future? Maybe six months from now, maybe three years from now … who knows. Too many unknowns at this point regarding this vaccine and its side effects.

Remember, there are multiple COVID vaccines being developed by multiple companies. Some still in development. Each individual vaccines has unique characteristics, side effects, etc. I think more/better research is needed to determine a path forward regarding this vs. blanket statements like “I will definitely take it” or “I will never take it” or “we should force employees to take it” etc.

Allison McGuire
BrainTrust

Definitely a tricky question that many companies are dealing with right now. I think the best option is to strongly encourage employees to get the vaccine, then provide it at no cost. Those that wish to refuse should have that right. Employees that get COVID and need to quarantine after the vaccine is refused, would have to use their personal sick time or vacation.

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