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These industries have low vaccination rates—and that could be a big problem for vaccine mandates

October 21, 2021, 7:41 PM UTC

About half of U.S. employers are already taking steps to verify the vaccine status of workers, but vaccination levels remain stubbornly low in some sectors. That could spell trouble as the Biden administration starts to ramp up the pressure on Americans to get vaccinated. 

After months of public and private organizations offering incentives from free beers and doughnuts to million-dollar lotteries and even flat cash payments, President Joe Biden moved to playing hardball last month.

He announced federal employees need to be vaccinated by Nov. 22 and those working at companies with federal contracts need to be inoculated by Dec. 8, 2021. Those that fail to comply could face unpaid leave or even termination. 

But Biden didn’t stop there—he directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard that would require private businesses with at least 100 employees ensure their workforce is vaccinated or undergoing weekly COVID-19 testing. The mandates are expected to affect as many as 100 million Americans

With the OSHA rule expected soon—OSHA sent over a draft to the White House for review last week—employers are starting to question the operational hurdles of complying with the rule and what can be done to prepare. 

But not everyone is starting from the same place. Some industries, including transportation, construction, manufacturing, and even food services all have lower vaccination rates. 

The Delphi Research Group at Carnegie Mellon University has been continuously running a survey around COVID trends since early April 2020, with about 50,000 people in the U.S. participating daily. The latest data, collected last week, shows that those in education, social services, and health care are among those with the highest vaccination rates. 

Delphi’s survey asks participants if they’ve received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Across the U.S., about 79% of Americans have had at least one jab, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So while it may seem like Delphi’s numbers are high, it’s likely not that far off. “We have been consistently high,” Alex Reinhart, Delphi’s principal investigator, admits to Fortune. Reinhart notes the data is self-reported, so there is some bias in who chooses to take the survey, which can be hard to adjust for. 

The Harris Poll, which also has a COVID tracker survey, asked over 2,100 workers about their vaccination status. The latest poll, conducted Sept. 24–26, found that one in four Americans are not vaccinated.

Its survey found that the industries with the lowest vaccination rates are fairly wide-ranging and include food services—restaurants, quick service, and catering—business services, manufacturing, and construction, as well as those working in public safety.

Yet despite the challenges, there’s some early signs that vaccine mandates work—and better than incentive programs—at improving vaccination rates, says Jeff Levin-Scherz, a physician who has led Willis Towers Watson's clinical response to COVID-19. 

“Employers that have put in place vaccine mandates, where the deadlines have already passed, have found very high levels of compliance with the mandate,” Levin-Scherz tells Fortune. “It turns out that only a very small portion of the population decides not to be vaccinated.” 

United Airlines, for example, had more than 96% of its approximately 67,000 U.S. employees comply with its vaccine mandate. Meanwhile, about 92% of Washington state workers complied with a vaccine mandate before the Oct. 18 deadline. Only about 3% of employees were terminated or left their jobs as a result of the mandate, which Gov. Jay Inslee announced in August. 

"In the early stages, it was about making it easy for employees to be vaccinated. We are probably at a point where employers need to make it difficult to remain unvaccinated,” Levin-Scherz says.

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