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Will Resignations Linked to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates Exacerbate the Labor Shortage?

  • As businesses cope with labor shortages, some fear that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate will create further challenges in finding and retaining workers
  • Several polls show a significant share of unvaccinated workers vowing to quit if their employer implements a mandate
  • However, only a small fraction of workers has resigned in businesses where a vaccine mandate has been established

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

Businesses struggling to find workers for job openings have encountered numerous factors making it a challenge to fill the positions, from a lack of skilled candidates to child care responsibilities keeping potential employees out of the labor force. Some companies now worry that COVID-19 vaccine mandates could also create challenges in finding workers or retaining their existing staff.

While most business leaders were initially reluctant to establish vaccine requirements for employees returning to in-person work, more have supported the idea as the COVID-19 Delta variant drives a new spike in infections and upends return-to-office plans. Several large businesses have established their own vaccine mandates, especially after the Food and Drug Administration give full approval to the Pfizer treatment.

Most notably, the Biden administration is looking to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees. Workers at these companies would be required to get the vaccine or be tested weekly. The mandate would be implemented as an emergency temporary standard through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Supporters of vaccine mandates hope that they will have a beneficial effect on the overall economy by reducing workforce and economic disruptions caused by COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. However, business leaders also worry that a mandate might deter job applicants, or cause existing workers to quit or seek work at companies that don’t require vaccination. These concerns are more pronounced in areas with low vaccination rates.

There have been numerous instances of workers choosing to quit rather than comply with a vaccine mandate. For example, several Massachusetts state troopers resigned in advance of an Oct. 17 deadline for Massachusetts executive department employees to get vaccinated. The effect is particularly pronounced in New York State, where thousands of hospital employees are risking termination after refusing to get vaccinated.

Some hospitals have opted to forgo vaccine mandates. Health care facilities are already facing staff shortages and worker burnout due to the pandemic, with some fearing that a mandate would compromise their ability to maintain adequate staffing to provide services. For example, an upstate New York hospital had to stop delivering babies after dozens of workers in the maternity ward quit.

In several surveys of unvaccinated workers, a large share of respondents has indicated that they will quit if their employer establishes a vaccine mandate. One poll found that 42 percent of respondents said they would quit in response to a mandate; among the 35 percent who said they would would seek an exemption instead, 72 percent said they would quit if they were denied one.

However, Scientific American suggests that despite high percentages of unvaccinated workers indicating that they would leave their jobs, actual resignations caused by a mandate have been few. Their analysis identifies several places where the number of employees who quit or were terminated over a vaccine mandate represent a tiny fraction of the overall workforce, such as 153 out of 25,000 workers at Houston Methodist Hospital.

While UNC Health in North Carolina associated 60 resignations and 35 declined job offers with the mandate as of Sept. 21, its system employs about 30,000 people. About 400 of Yale New Haven Health’s 30,000 workers had not received a vaccine or exemption ahead of a Friday deadline, risking termination.

Scientific American suggests that while surveys may show a widespread affirmation among unvaccinated workers to walking away from a job where the COVID-19 vaccine is a requirement, people are more likely say they’ll quit in response to a vaccine mandate and less likely to commit to this decision when they actually risk losing their job.

Business groups are seeking to provide input on the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates proposal, both to share their experiences in their own mandates and to discuss issues that might arise if a broader mandate goes into effect. These include who is responsible for paying for weekly testing of unvaccinated employees and what disciplinary action is merited against employees who refuse to get vaccinated or seek an exemption.

While some small business groups have raised objections to the White House’s vaccine mandate proposal, smaller companies could also see more of a competitive advantage if a mandate is established since they will be exempt from its requirements. While this could position them well for attracting workers who want to avoid vaccine mandates, small businesses could also be at risk for more severe disruptions if COVID-19 infections occur and spread in the workplace.

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