As covid-19 vaccines begin to roll out across the country, many employers are preparing to give the shots to workers, but not making it a requirement.
Because of the possible legal implications that come with forcing vaccines on employees, they are strongly encouraging workers to get inoculated.
Companies can legally require workers to get the vaccine, for workplace safety reasons, legal experts said, but there are limitations.
Issues may arise when vaccine mandates interfere with anti-discrimination laws that protect workers with disabilities, medical conditions and religious objections, according to the National Law Review. There are also many people who just don't want to get the coronavirus vaccine right now. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows about 60% of Americans say they are likely to get the vaccine, and 40% who say they likely won't, or definitely won't.
Robert Steinbuch, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, said he doesn't view vaccine mandates as particularly controversial, from a legal standpoint.
People give up some of their freedoms, such as free speech, when they apply for a job, Steinbuch said, "it's the same thing for the covid and flu vaccines."
However, since the covid-19 vaccine is so new, questions remain of the potential side effects, which can put companies in a tough spot if they require their workers to take it, said Alan Ellstrand, associate dean of the Walton College of Business.
"If someone does get sick from the vaccine, they can file for workers' compensation," he said, "which could lead to lawsuits.
"I think the smart legal advice is to strongly suggest people get the vaccine," Ellstrand said.
Most companies, even hospitals, are taking that approach in regard to the covid-19 vaccine. Walmart, which began administering vaccines to health care workers at several store locations in New Mexico last week, said its medical teams have been educating workers about the vaccine, so they can be ready to get it "if they so choose."
Tyson Foods said it is closely monitoring the types of vaccines in development and working on distribution plans so workers can "get access" to the vaccine when one becomes available.
Neither Walmart nor Tyson said they were explicitly requiring vaccinations for their workers.
Asked why companies are wary of the inoculations, Steinbuch said, employers aren't interested in telling employees what they can or cannot do, unless it's business-related.
"Personally, I wouldn't tell someone they must get the vaccine," he said. "I think it's prudent that we get it. But in the end, you make your own choice."
Health professionals that interact with patients on a daily basis are required to get seasonal vaccinations each year, like the flu shot, but several employers are not requiring the coronavirus vaccine. Regardless, several workers have received the vaccine and are posting their initial physical reactions to it on social media, encouraging others to get the shot when it becomes available. Others want more information before doing so.
Laura Chesser, a lab scientist at Arkansas Children's Hospital, said her employer isn't requiring workers to get the covid-19 vaccine, for now, but she plans to get one tomorrow.
There are risks involved with any vaccine, she said, but whatever they may be "I imagine it's far less damaging than the long-term complications of a bad covid infection."
For Chesser, the pros outweigh the cons, but many don't see it that way. She said a few of her co-workers are hesitant because they feel the vaccine was rushed and want to wait and see how others react to it.
"I think Children's just wants us to have autonomy over our bodies, and respects our decision to wait until we are comfortable," Chesser said. "I imagine at some point in the future when this is far behind us it'll be mandatory, but I'm not sure."
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is also not mandating that its workers, volunteers and students get covid-19 vaccinations, but is strongly encouraging them to do so.
"Especially our front line caregivers and those who have patient contact like housekeeping and nutrition services," UAMS spokesman Leslie Taylor said in an email Thursday. The medical research center has vaccinated more than 3,500 workers so far.
The vaccine has not been offered to all employees yet, Taylor said, because UAMS has designated its first shipments for the most at-risk groups.
According to the state's vaccination roll-out plan, the first shipments went to health and nursing home personnel. As more supplies are made available, essential workers, including school teachers, grocery clerks, government officials and meatpacking workers will have access to the vaccine through local pharmacies and medical clinics.
There are two covid-19 vaccines available to the public as of Dec. 18, and both require a second dose within a month of getting the first shot.
Once the state is able to vaccinate all health care workers and others in the phase 1A category, it will move on to essential workers in the phase 1B category, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a written statement.
"I'm hopeful that will be sometime by late January," Hutchinson said. "Since the vaccine supplies are produced and delivered weekly, it will take an undetermined amount of time to vaccinate all of the workers."