By Josh Cunningham
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and Americans have grown accustomed to the new way of life the virus suddenly forced upon us. From curbside pickups to endless Zoom meetings and full-time teleworking, COVID-19 has changed habits and norms in most people’s lives.
With three approved COVID-19 vaccines now available to the public, health experts predict the country will reach herd immunity—the point at which enough of the population is immune to the virus leaving it nowhere to spread—by as early as mid-summer. Many state policymakers are eager to relax social distancing mandates and reignite their economies. But are Americans ready to go back to the workplace?
A new report published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) sheds light on employer and worker attitudes about reopening workplaces. SHRM found that 3 in 5 Americans plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to them. Alternatively, 28% of Americans refuse to get vaccinated even if it costs them their job.
These numbers are important as many employers across the country weigh the option of mandating that their employees be vaccinated. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) recently issued guidance for employers wanting to mandate vaccinations as a condition of employment.
Such mandates are legally permitted, though employers must ensure they comply with various federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC guidance helps employers navigate these federal laws in the event they choose to implement a vaccine mandate.
SHRM’s report, however, found just 5% of employers intend to require workers be vaccinated before returning to work. Another 60% say they will not mandate vaccinations. This dynamic appears to align with overall public opinion about vaccine mandates. While SHRM found that a third of Americans support vaccine mandates from businesses or governments, 52% oppose such mandates.
Redefining the Workplace
Despite hesitancy to mandate vaccines, employers still may struggle to bring employees back into the workplace.
A recent Gallup poll showed 58% of Americans still work from home at least part of the time a year into the pandemic, and they largely want to keep it that way after the pandemic ends. SHRM found that 52% of workers currently working remotely want to continue doing so permanently. Of those, 35% are willing to take a pay cut to stay home.
Working from home brings a number of benefits to workers and employers, including increasing productivity, creating a healthier work-life balance and reducing facility costs.
Forced remote work may not be the solution either. The Gallup poll showed 39% of workers currently working from home want to be back at the workplace. Teleworking presents new challenges to some workers including those with limited access to high-speed internet or who have children at home. Some workers thrive off the social connections at the workplace that cannot always be organically replicated through a video chat.
Employers are responding to the changing demands of the workforce. A survey of business leaders by research firm Gartner found that 82% of companies intend to allow employees to work from home at least part of the time going forward.
What This Means
With the pandemic’s end possibly in sight, reopening the American economy remains full of unknowns. COVID-19 has forced a radical shift in the nature by which work is performed. Employers recognize that strict policies like vaccine mandates and full-time in-person work (or full-time remote work) may cost them workers. The message from the workforce appears clear—flexibility will be a key component of the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Josh Cunningham is a program manager in NCSL's Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.