At Google and Amazon, it’s “strongly encouraged.” At Trader Joe’s, it will earn employees extra pay. At the downtown Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, it will be a condition of returning to the office. Aegis senior living facilities will require it once vaccines are widely available.
As the coronavirus vaccine gradually becomes more accessible, businesses big and small are weighing whether to require their employees to get the shot.
For office employees and front-line workers, a vaccine requirement could mean safety and peace of mind as the economy starts to return to pre-pandemic levels. But a mandate could also turn off some workers who are skeptical of the vaccine and introduce new headaches as long the vaccine is in short supply.
For a middle ground, some businesses are turning to incentives like extra pay to nudge employees to get vaccinated as soon as they’re able.
In the Seattle area, most big-name employers are so far holding off on a vaccine requirement.
Amazon and Boeing say they are encouraging employees to get the vaccine, but not requiring it at present. Google said it “is not requiring vaccinations for employees to return to the office, but we are strongly encouraging it.” The company says its employees, including 5,750 in Washington state, can work from home until September.
Among workers on the front lines, some are eager to get the vaccine — with or without company rules.
PCC Community Markets courtesy clerk Laurae McIntyre first signed up for two waiting lists, looking for a chance to get vaccinated. Last weekend, she got her first shot at a clinic for grocery workers who meet the state’s current age requirements. Once she gets her second dose, PCC will offer her a $25 gift card.
“That’s a nice incentive. I would have gotten my vaccine anyway,” said McIntyre, 68.
Working during the pandemic has been exhausting, McIntyre said. “I didn’t let my guard down,” she said, “but I knew I wanted to be there because it was needed.”
Vaccine mandates are a “tough question,” McIntyre said. Most people she knows are eager to be vaccinated but she still hears from some who are uncertain.
“I’m not sure how I would feel if it was mandated. I took it upon myself to do it for personal reasons,” she said.
For now, vaccine mandates are a mostly theoretical question. The vaccine is in short supply and more people are eligible than shots are available. Still, the federal government has given employers a green light to require the vaccine as long as some exemptions are allowed.
Nationally, several grocery chains including Trader Joe’s are offering bonuses or paid time off to get the vaccine.
Safeway and Costco representatives said they do not currently have plans to require employee vaccinations or to offer incentives like extra pay.
Once the vaccine is more widely available, Safeway, Albertsons and Haggen will let employees make vaccination appointments at in-store pharmacies, said spokesperson Sara Osborne. So far, eligible employees have received what Osborne described as “an opportunity to secure guaranteed appointments” at stores near where they work.
At Costco, likewise, “we hope simply to offer employees convenience, via our Costco pharmacies,” said Patrick Callans, executive vice president of administration.
At the same time, many supermarket operators are opposing new pandemic hazard-pay requirements such as the one recently passed by the Seattle City Council, requiring large grocery stores to raise front-line workers’ pay by $4 per hour. While Trader Joe’s temporarily boosted pay nationwide, supermarket industry groups have sued the city and the CEO of PCC urged Mayor Jenny Durkan to not sign the legislation.
Amazon drew scrutiny last year over whether it did enough to protect its thousands of warehouse and Whole Foods grocery store employees. In December, the company told Gov. Jay Inslee it was preparing to provide on-site vaccinations to workers using a third-party provider “just like we do for seasonal flu shots.”
Senior-living facilities, too, will face pressure to vaccinate workers.
At Bellevue-based Aegis Living, “as soon as the vaccine becomes widely available, we will require the vaccines for all team members, exempting those with federally defined exemptions,” said president Kris Engskov. The company has been holding vaccine clinics for employees.
Jimmy Van, 24, an associate care director at an Aegis facility in Seattle, was preparing to get his second dose of the vaccine Thursday. Getting vaccinated felt like “a good first step to being back to being normal,” Van said. “It made me really happy.”
Van, whose job includes caring for residents as well as managerial work, said most of his co-workers are eager to get the vaccine. Those who are hesitant worry about side effects or want to wait to see someone they know vaccinated, he said.
As the shot becomes a mandate at Aegis, “I think some will be kind of resistant, but a lot of them already know it might become mandatory because it’s the health care system,” Van said.
Van said he welcomes the policy. “It’s a safety net for our workers and our residents,” he said.
LifeCare, the long-term care facility chain whose Kirkland center was the site of the first COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, is not yet requiring the vaccine but is encouraging it, the company said in a statement on its website. Staff at the Kirkland center began to receive vaccines in late December.
If the government requires vaccination for healthcare workers, LifeCare will update its policy, the statement said.
Vaccine mandates could face pushback in some workplaces.
UFCW 21, which represents grocery store, healthcare and retail store workers, prefers a voluntary approach, noting that “mandates may make people more skeptical and resistant.”
“We believe the best way to get wide vaccine adoption is through voluntary compliance, proper education,and an equitable and accessible process,” said spokesperson Anna Minard.
The Washington State Labor Council, which represents unions across the state, opposes vaccine requirements, according to spokesperson David Groves.
The University of Washington, which employs more than 46,000 people, is still determining whether a vaccine “can or will be required,” said spokesperson Victor Balta. At UW Medicine, employees are notified when they are able to get the vaccine and are required to schedule an appointment, decline or postpone, Balta said.
For office workers, a small number of local employers are prepared to eventually make vaccination a condition of in-office work.
The law firm Davis Wright Tremaine announced in late January it will require employees working in the office to be vaccinated within a “reasonable” amount of time of becoming eligible.
The firm will offer two additional days off to get the vaccine or cope with side effects, if needed, and will ask employees to submit proof of the vaccine to the human resources department, said Pete Johnson, the partner in charge of the firm’s Seattle office.
Davis Wright Tremaine, with about 600 employees in its Seattle office, is believed to be the first major firm to announce such a policy, Law 360 reported. (The firm has represented The Seattle Times.)
Workers exempted for religious reasons or on the advice of a doctor could continue working from home, Johnson said.
He said the company is looking to protect its employees, clients and people they interact with in court. “At some point we do need to say: if we’re congregating… we need to be sure we’re not transmitting or putting our people at risk or, as much as possible, other people at risk,” he said.
Gravity Payments, the credit-card processing company with about 200 employees and an office in Ballard, will not allow unvaccinated employees to return to working in the office, the company said. However, they will be allowed to continue working from home.
Employers should be preparing for vaccine access now, said Marissa Baker, assistant professor of occupational health at UW. She suggested businesses survey their workers to find out about concerns and questions, then offer information about the vaccine’s safety.
Incentives might prove more effective than requirements, Baker said.
Some workers may hesitate to get the vaccine because of skepticism about the medical establishment, due to past practices like experimentation on enslaved Black Americans and forced or coerced sterilization of Black and Native American women.
“It’s troublesome to think about someone going in and demanding someone get a vaccine when there is generational trauma around that type of thing,” Baker said.
Workers may also worry about whether they have enough paid time off to get the vaccine and cope with potential side effects, or may have logistical questions about when their turn for the vaccine will come. Employers could help address those questions.
“Workplaces need to have an idea of what the concerns are,” Baker said, “because some of the concerns might be more easily addressed than others.”