We can’t ignore vaccine mandates as we look into labor shortages

November 9, 2021, 12:16 PM UTC
New York municipal workers held a protest on Oct. 25 against the vaccine mandate.
Ed Jones—Getty Images

You’ve seen the headlines. A record number of Americans are quitting their jobs. The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), commissioned by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that 2.9% of Americans quit their jobs in August, the highest figure since the survey began in 2000. The report is generally about a month behind, but I see those already outrageous numbers going ever higher in September and October.

The question is why? While the argument over the summer was centered around pay, benefits, and working conditions, it’s now shifting to vaccine mandates. Many workers are deciding to leave their jobs, whether it be through resignation or termination, rather than get the COVID-19 vaccine.

This could not have come at a worse time for the country. It’s no secret that vaccination is the way out of this pandemic, and, personally, I believe the vaccine to be safe and effective. In fact, I’ve been vaccinated since February. That being said, I fully understand how others could be hesitant. The issue has been so politicized that even Donald Trump’s followers booed him when he told them to get vaccinated. Remember back in 2020 when then-President Trump took full credit for getting the vaccine approved and in use in record time through Operation Warp Speed? Now even his own followers are undermining what could have been a huge political win.

Which leads us to where we are right now. Everyone who wanted the vaccine has, for the most part, already been vaccinated. The government mandates on health care workers, educational employees, and federal government employees have not persuaded people to take the vaccine as expected. In fact, it looks like more people are choosing to leave their jobs or ask for accommodations rather than submit to forced vaccination. When the new rules forcing every private employer with more than 100 employees to require its employees to be vaccinated come into effect, we will see yet another jump in resignation and terminations. This is only going to worsen the persisting labor and supply chain troubles.

So the second question is, What could we have done better? Americans do not like being told what to do, especially during a time when trust in government is at an all-time low. In order to answer this, we have to go back to late 2020/early 2021, when the vaccines were being rolled out. Rather than let politics and social media drive the conversation regarding the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, the government should have taken the bull by the horns and hired a marketing firm to control the message. Both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden hold the blame for the poor messaging and misinformation that persists today. Had the messaging been done right, the COVID-19 vaccine would have been less politicized, more trusted, and government mandates may not have been necessary.

Now we are stuck with a divided society, a labor crisis, a supply chain crisis, soaring inflation, low worker morale, a low vaccination rate, a pandemic that will not quit, and millions of Americans out of work. Oh, and to top it off, up to a third of Chicago police officers could be placed on unpaid leave over the city’s vaccine mandate. This is happening in a city where crime is out of control. Do the residents of Chicago, and other major cities, really want their police forces cut in half over their vaccination status? I know I don’t.

We must ask ourselves: How do we fix this? First, it is not too late to drive the vaccine narrative. Get the right information out to the public through a forum that is trusted—which is a challenge in itself—and provide all the supporting data. Social media platforms also have a role in this. Censoring people’s opinions only leads to more mistrust.

The government should not be the force driving the mandates. If private industry feels vaccinating its employees is good for business, let the businesses make that decision. Under the current system, patients have to leave the office and go to a vaccination site, which many of them are not doing. Give the vaccine in the office. Governmental mandates on anything always lead to pushback and conspiracy theories that diminish the final result. Get the vaccines in the hands of private physicians who patients trust.

The country’s leadership needs to start thinking out of the box and coming up with solutions that actually address the problems the country is facing, regardless of the politics or power struggles involved. Leave the childish measuring contests on the playground where they belong. There has to be a better way to jump-start the economy while at the same time increasing vaccination rates.

Ronald J. Pugliese Jr. is a union, labor, and employment lawyer.

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