Expect a surge in employer vaccine mandates, Willis Towers Watson survey says

A growing number of employers are rolling out some kind of COVID-19 vaccine mandate as they grapple with reopening worksites amid a surge of cases due to the delta variant.

A survey from Willis Towers Watson, conducted between Aug. 15-26 of 961 employers representing 9.7 million workers, found that 52% of employers could have a mandate in place by the fourth quarter. Their plans range from requiring vaccines to use common areas like cafeterias to requiring certain groups of employees to get vaccinated to requiring vaccines for all workers.

That represents a significant increase from the 21% that had such mandates in place this summer, the survey shows.

Twenty-nine percent said they are planning or considering a vaccine requirement for access to the worksite, and 21% said they are considering vaccines as a requirement for employment, according to the survey.

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“The delta variant has made employers take new actions to keep their workers—and workplaces—safe and healthy. We expect even more employers to institute vaccine mandates in the wake of FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., population health leader at Willis Towers Watson, in a statement.

“This is not an easy situation for employers to navigate. For instance, new policies such as tracking workers’ vaccinations can improve safety but also bring additional administrative requirements. At the same time, employers will continue efforts to encourage vaccination and communicate regularly with employees," Levin-Scherz said.

While healthcare organizations like hospitals have led the charge in vaccine mandates, employers in other sectors have been hesitant to do the same, instead mulling alternatives to incentivize workers to get the shot such as offering scheduling flexibility for vaccine appointments.

Some have also considered premium surcharges for unvaccinated workers. The biggest company to take this approach is Delta Airlines, which said it would raise premiums for unvaccinated employees by $200 a month beginning Nov. 1 to account for higher COVID-19 costs.

A growing number of employers also told Willis Towers Watson that they would track their workers' vaccination status, with 59% saying they do so currently and 19% saying they plan to by the end of the year. Most (62%) require proof of vaccination such as a completed card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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In addition, the survey found employers are adjusting other return-to-work policies as the delta variant drives up COVID-19 case counts. Most (80%) said they would require masks indoors at any location, with 13% saying they were planning or considering the same.

Three-quarters of employers are also using contract tracing to monitor case exposure or outbreaks in their workforces.

Thirty-nine percent said they don't expect to reach a "new normal" in terms of a return to the workplace until the second quarter of 2022, the survey found. About a quarter (26%) said they expect to reach that sense of normalcy in the first quarter.

“The one certainty right now is that employers will continue to adjust their plans through the remainder of 2021," Levin-Scherz said. "While some employers will institute more frequent testing, workplace restrictions on the unvaccinated, and vaccination mandates, all will have one common goal in mind—to keep their workforce healthy and productive by minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the workplace.”