On and On


It’s beginning to feel as if the pandemic will never end. It will just continue to morph from one set of unusual protocols to another until we all leave the stage.

In the meantime, our perception of the threat posed by COVID changes along with those protocols, and we worry about a different set of problems than we did before. A year ago, for example, we at this company worried that people would be afraid to read magazines because it might be possible that the virus could be carried through the mail on paper surfaces.

That idea seems ludicrous now (as I’m sure some of our current concerns will seem a year from now). At this point we consider the virus to be an airborne agent, which means that the spraying of bleach all over everything was basically a waste of time.

We now have two options. We can stay away from each other, or we can get vaccinated.

I have a feeling that the staying away from each other strategy pretty much ran its course. We evolved as a social species, like wolves, and we can only deny our nature for so long before we gravitate back to the pack, consequences be damned.

So that leaves us with vaccines, and in that respect Americans should consider themselves extremely fortunate. In an effort that was truly historic, several of our major pharmaceutical companies developed highly effective vaccines in record times. Compared to most of the rest of the world, we’ve also proven to be remarkably efficient at the distribution and administration of those vaccines.

There is a catch, though. On April 13, the same day that the Food and Drug Administration put a “pause” on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the number of people getting vaccinated stopped rising and began to decline.

On that day, more than 3 million people got a shot. On the day I’m writing this, it will be fewer than 2 million. The idea of so-called “herd immunity,” where so many people are vaccinated that the virus stops circulating, now seems out of reach.

They call it “vaccine hesitancy,” although that is a highly misleading term. There are many reasons why a large share of the population is slow to get vaccinated, or refuses altogether. Hesitant doesn’t begin to cover it.

Ironically, the failure to get everyone vaccinated makes those who are vaccinated even more important. They are the people who can go to ballgames and concerts, who can eat at restaurants and travel to foreign countries. They are also the people who can work in stores.

As owners or managers of small businesses, we obviously want our employees to be vaccinated. We don’t want people out sick, or quarantined, and we don’t want them infecting each other or our customers. As human beings, we don’t want people we care about to be at risk of contracting a virus that can be lethal.

So, what do we do about it?

Well, we could require them to get vaccinated. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance indicating that employers could make vaccination a prerequisite for returning to work after the shutdown. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled long ago that schools may require vaccination of students, and it appears many of them will do so.

In a survey conducted by Arizona State University in February, 44 percent of executives said that they were planning to mandate vaccination for their employees. A month later, a smaller survey conducted by Willis, Towers, Watson indicated that only 23 percent had such a plan.

Part of that difference may be the margin of error in the surveys, but they would seem to indicate that enthusiasm for vaccine mandates among business leaders is lessening over time. There are very few major companies actually enforcing any sort of requirement, including those companies which had announced earlier that they intended to.

United Airlines, for example, announced in January that it would order all of its nearly 100,000 employees to be vaccinated. Now it says it’s “considering” the situation.

There are a lot of details to consider. What would you do if a third of your employees refuse, fire them all? You couldn’t very well fire some and not others. Then there is the possibility that a key person, say your best store manager, declines the vaccine.

If you decide to go ahead with a mandate in spite of those potential problems, you will also need to figure out the exceptions to your rule. Religious objections would be one, but you will have to define what those are, and whether or not they need to be part of an organized faith.

Medical conditions would be another, but you again run into issues when it comes to definition. Is anxiety a medical condition?

With both of those exceptions, you also have a sticky situation regarding confidentiality. Employees may not be willing to share their religious convictions or medical histories with their employer, and I for one don’t wish to ask them.

Even more worrisome is the question of liability. If a business orders people to get vaccinated, the business might expose itself to legal liability for any side effects from the shots, which could possibly show up years down the road.

Rather than deal with all those issues, companies that feel strongly about vaccinating their workforce are trying to find ways to incentivize voluntary vaccinations. The most obvious method is simply to offer cash, which varies from a few dollars into the hundreds.

Some companies get more creative, like offering to buy employees a drink (a shot and a beer) or tickets to a ballgame. Others have gone with free food or time off from work. It appears that around 25 percent of the vaccine hesitant might be induced through the use of such incentives.

As the owner of a small business, though, I can’t help but think that there are better ways to incentivize employees. How about a plan that actually benefits workers in their careers, and the company as well?

The point of getting vaccinated is not just to protect one’s own health, but to keep from spreading the virus to other people as well. One group that any company would logically wish to protect from infection would be its customers.

I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t imagine that there is any reason a business couldn’t reward vaccinated employees with more opportunities to interact with customers. I don’t just mean waiting on store shoppers, but being involved with workshops and demonstrations, sales calls, traveling to trade shows, and whatever else you can come up with.

If I were one of your employees, that’s the sort of shot I would want.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com

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