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Mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations get cool reception

Mandated COVID-19 vaccinations may be unpopular with many U.S. employers, including the federal government. A primary concern is the potential for liability.

The federal government has not mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for its 2.1 million civilian workers, and a top government scientist said Tuesday it might be a mistake for it to do so.

Getting to herd immunity does not require every U.S. citizen be vaccinated, and there will be some federal workers who reject vaccination for personal reasons, said Timothy Persons, chief scientist and managing director of the science, technology assessment and analytics team for the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

"I think it's likely going to be counterproductive if it's mandated in a very strict way" such as requiring proof, Persons said. He made the comments at a virtual Future of Work conference, hosted by Nextgov and the Government Executive Media Group. 

Persons believes unvaccinated employees who now work remotely can continue to do so. But he also expects that even with vaccines, workplaces will continue to mandate protections, such as wearing masks and office separations that enhance social distancing.

The rejection of a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirement may be the prevailing attitude among private employers. 

In a March 16 survey, Gartner asked 227 HR managers at large global organizations their vaccination requirement plans. Only 8% of respondents said their firms would require employees to show proof of vaccination, but 36% plan to have employees self-report their vaccination status. Most of the balance, 48%, will not track vaccination status. Responses from the remaining 8% of respondents were not detailed.

The reasons for not asking about vaccine status concern the legal risk, especially if there are workplace infections, said Brian Kropp, chief of research for Gartner's HR practice. The question will be "who's responsible at that point," he said.

Invasion of privacy concerns

Employers are also "really concerned about the perceived invasion of privacy" if they ask about an employee's vaccine status, Kropp said. For the firms that are requiring vaccination proof, "they're essentially saying that safety is paramount," and one way of doing that is by not allowing unvaccinated employees back into the workplace. 

Governments and tech firms are creating digital vaccine verification systems, mostly apps with scannable QR codes. But Kropp doesn't believe the systems will have much impact on business attitudes about verification. 

"The reality is that by the time there's a system that's fully up and running, that's trustworthy, and that companies are using, it's gonna take several quarters to get there," Kropp said. Businesses want to start reopening offices well before a verification app is ready for deployment, he said. 

We've got to turn a corner on this so that we can seek some sort of normalcy again.
Tony ReardonPresident, National Treasury Employees Union

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in December that employers can seek mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations and ask employees for proof, but it also allows exemptions for religious reasons or disability. 

Although federal civilian workers and military service members aren't required to get the COVID-19 vaccine, some in Congress are urging President Joe Biden to make it a requirement for military personnel, the Navy Times reported. The effort is being led by U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), who believes mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations will improve the military's readiness. 

One of the federal government's largest employee unions, the National Treasury Employees Union, also urged its members to get vaccinated. It represents 150,000 federal employees.

"We've put messages out directly to our members indicating that it's important to get vaccinated and asking them to do it," Tony Reardon, union president, said at the virtual conference.

"Please get vaccinated because it might be somebody you love whose life you're protecting," Reardon said. "We've got to turn a corner on this so that we can seek some sort of normalcy again." 

Patrick Thibodeau covers human capital management and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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