Should companies require workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Mike Bebernes
·5 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The rollout of the first coronavirus vaccine has given hope that the end of the pandemic in the United States may be somewhere on the horizon. Still, it will be several months before a large enough share of the population — somewhere around 70 or 80 percent — have been vaccinated to provide herd immunity.

The urgency to end the pandemic as quickly as possible, plus fears that a sizable number of people may refuse the vaccine, have sparked debate over whether COVID-19 vaccinations should be mandatory. A nationwide mandate from the federal government is unlikely. But individual companies have begun weighing whether to require their employees to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Employment-law experts broadly agree that companies have the legal right to mandate their employees be vaccinated and to punish or even fire staff members who refuse. There would be significant room for exceptions, however, for those with medical reasons or a “sincerely held” religious reason not to take the vaccine.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for company vaccine mandates say employers have an obligation to protect the safety of their staff and customers as the economy begins to open back up. In the absence of government mandates, requirements from private companies may be the most effective way to ensure that large swaths of the population get vaccinated quickly. The motivation of being able to return to the office — or the risk of being terminated — could be powerful motivators to help overcome widespread vaccine skepticism. A mandate also makes financial sense, some argue, because it would allow companies to get back to full operation more quickly.

Opponents say requiring the vaccine would be counterproductive for companies, which would be inviting unnecessary conflict with their staff. Mandates could also spark expensive and lengthy legal battles if an employee had an adverse reaction to the vaccine or claimed being discriminated against for not taking it.

A much better plan, some argue, is for employers to provide incentives for their staff to take the vaccine, like bonuses or special perks. A motivational approach can help persuade most employees to get vaccinated while lessening the risk of disputes, they say.

What’s next

Vaccine supplies are so limited at the moment that most companies outside of the medical and elder-care sectors will likely have a few months before deciding whether to issue an employee vaccine mandate. A related debate is also emerging over whether companies can and should require their customers to be vaccinated, an idea proposed by at least three major airlines.


Company mandates may be the only way to get America to herd immunity

“If individuals are left to make the vaccine decision by themselves, a 75 percent compliance rate may be unattainable. That’s why business leaders are so uniquely positioned: They can tell employees that they may only return to the workplace if they get vaccinated.” — Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times

Potential backlash to a mandate may not be worth the benefits

“Employers need to think about the reality that a lot of employees may say, ‘No. I’m not getting this,’ and if that happens there could be an impact on the workforce very significantly.” — Labor and employment lawyer Brett Coburn to CNN

Safety takes precedence over all other concerns

“Companies have every good reason to get all of their employees vaccinated and also have an obligation to keep all employees and customers safe.” — Health law expert Lawrence Gostin to Reuters

Companies should encourage employees to get the vaccine but not require them

“It may not be what they want to do. If someone had an adverse reaction [to the vaccine], it could trigger a workers’ compensation claim. … Encourage but stop short of requiring it. That may be the safe approach for now.” — Employment law attorney Lukas Clary to Sacramento Bee

High unemployment means employees will be more likely to comply

“Ultimately, the U.S. is still in the midst of an employment crisis. Record unemployment numbers have put immense pressure on the labor market, especially in service-based industries, where workers are most at risk. … So workers may not have much of a choice if they want to keep a job.” — MacKenzie Sigalos, CNBC

Enforcing a vaccine mandate would be tricky

“Employers believe they are on firm legal ground to mandate vaccinations, but that doesn't mean enforcement won’t be without its challenges, particularly given the backlash in some parts of the country to mask mandates and smaller groups opposed to vaccinations of any kind.” — Alex Gangitano, The Hill

Mandates are pointless until vaccine supply levels increase dramatically

“Most people will come around, so I’m not even sure that we even need to have a conversation about mandates. If it’s eight months from now and we’ve got ample supply and we’ve run through all the people who wanted to get the vaccine, and we’re still nowhere near herd immunity, it may be a different conversation.” — Health law expert Michelle Mello to USA Today

Mandates are a bad idea unless laws are changed

“My hunch is that most private employers will not mandate the vaccine and those that do will find themselves in court eventually. … My second hunch is that the courts will set a very high bar for employers before allowing them to impose vaccine mandates under the current laws, and legislators are going to have to pass new laws to provide more clarity.” — Greg Giangrande, New York Post

Employers are taking a risk, regardless of what they do

“The issue is plagued with uncertainty. Making the vaccine mandatory could create a workplace revolt. So, too, could requiring employees to return to offices among colleagues who have refused protection against the virus.” — Chase DiFeliciantonio, San Francisco Chronicle

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Carlos Osorio/Reuters