With employees thinking about the return to work, employers have started to ask for vaccination status — or not.Companies today are more willing to engage on social and cultural issues than they have been in the past — but still, they have little appetite for the potential legal and public relations headaches related to vaccination mandates.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images fileJune 10, 2021, 7:45 PM UTCBy Martha C. White

An internal Goldman Sachs memo obtained by the New York Times offers a glimpse into what is likely to be a fraught issue that companies would like very much to keep under wraps as return-to-work dates near: How to square the often conflicting concerns, beliefs and demands of employees around Covid-19 vaccines.

The investment bank said U.S.-based employees who had not already done so were required to report their vaccination status to the company by noon Eastern Time on Thursday, the Times reported. The memo didn’t require that workers be vaccinated, or to provide proof of vaccination — just which vaccine they received and when.

“The employer mentality has been really changing as vaccinations have become widely available,” said Michael Schmidt, vice chair of the labor and employment department at the law firm of Cozen O’Connor.

Directives like Goldman Sachs’ that ask about vaccine status could be the first step to eventually issuing an employee mandate. “It’s possible, by design, that they’re laying the groundwork,” Schmidt said. “I think employers in greater numbers have been asking for vaccination status because they are actively in planning mode and want to have a sense of what their policy is going to be later in the year.”

"Mandating proof of vaccination might become more common closer to the end of 2021 and into 2022.”

Schmidt suggested that mandating might become more common in the future, saying, “I think we’ll see more of that as we get closer to the end of 2021 and into 2022.”

Currently, though, even asking about vaccinations is a topic on which corporate America is split. A survey of more than 200 human resources executives taken last month by consulting firm Gartner found a nearly even divide, with 52 percent of respondents saying they plan to track their employees’ vaccine status, versus 48 percent indicating they do not plan to do so. Only “a very small percentage” required proof such as the submission of a vaccine card scan or photo.

“We had an active discussion about whether we should mandate this,” said Amy Frampton, head of marketing at human resources software company BambooHR. She said the executive team for the 900-person company wrestled with the question before eventually deciding not to mandate, but to encourage employees to do so and give them paid time off to get vaccinated. “For our company and our culture, we just decided it was the right way to go,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of reasons to mandate. This isn’t an anti-mandate position… it’s a slightly softer take,” she said, adding that the company decided vaccination was “an individual choice” and that BambooHR’s 900 employees have been given the choice of in-office, hybrid or remote work. Employees in the office — regardless of vaccination status — must wear masks and work at desks set up for social distancing, she added.

While companies have lately been more willing to engage on social and cultural issues than they have in the past, such as speaking out against restrictive voting laws in a number of GOP-led states, they have little appetite for the potential legal and public relations headaches pertaining to questions around disclosure and vaccination mandates.

“Masks were so politicized. Vaccinations are politicized as well,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research for the HR Practice at Gartner. “There are a significant percentage of employees who feel it is not the right of their employer to ask.” Employers, he said, are “getting a lot of pushback from their employees about even asking the question.” Gartner found that only about 10 percent of companies intend to mandate vaccines for people working on-site.

Schmidt hypothesized that companies are taking their time in anticipation of the potential conflict mandates will create. “I just think they don’t want to deal right now with the accommodation process and distinguishing objections,” he said.

Recent guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifying that employers can require that employees be vaccinated, and offer incentives for them to do so, is likely to embolden some companies to engage more with their workers on the topic of vaccinations.

“Masks were so politicized. Vaccinations are politicized as well."

Frampton said she saw that the guidance helped provide additional clarity for her company’s customers. “The EEOC declaration is going to give companies a lot of comfort and understanding that they can make that choice [to mandate] if they want to,” she said.

Some governments are addressing the topic proactively: California’s Santa Clara County, for instance, mandated that employers must monitor employees’ vaccination status — a stance that has prompted a backlash from some local small business owners, NBC’s San Francisco-area affiliate reported.

But according to a memo from President Joe Biden’s administration, even the federal government is reluctant to make the issue a red line. Reuters reported Thursday that the upcoming guidance from agencies overseeing federal workers said neither disclosure of vaccine status nor a requirement to be vaccinated should be prerequisites for those employees returning to the office.

Kropp said the question around vaccines in the workplace — balancing, for instance, one worker’s worry about exposing an immunocompromised relative to the virus with another worker’s religious convictions — has the potential to create long-lasting shifts in who works where.

Like many other aspects of corporate culture, there are likely to be industrial and geographical lines of demarcation — and those lines could leave a lasting impression.

“What we tend to see is tech companies tend to be more paternalistic in terms of offering more services, more support, more care to their employees,” Kropp said. “The way we’re starting to see it shake out is the more white-collar and IP-intensive the work, the more paternalistic… The less white-collar the less IP-intensive it is, the less likely they are [to get involved],” Kropp said.

“We’re going to see culture split along those different dimensions,” he said. “Employees will be able to make choices as to what kind of company they want to work for… and what implications does that have?”