Walmart won widespread applause last month for requiring its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But its announcement came with a twist: The mandate applied only to its corporate staff, not to the bulk of its 1.6 million employees who work in its stores and distribution centers.

From a public-health perspective, the exclusion makes no sense. Given the nature of their jobs, Walmart's frontline workers are in far greater need of vaccinations than, say, its software engineers who are working from home. So why the double standard? A company spokesperson offered this explanation: The hope is for vaccinated professionals to "influence even more of our frontline associates to become vaccinated."

A more honest explanation would have cited the job market. The truth is, Walmart doesn't want to mandate vaccines for its blue-collar workers because it's really, really tough right now to hire blue-collar workers. Businesses are struggling to hang on to their employees, and are engaged in fierce competition with rivals to recruit new ones. A vaccine mandate for white-collar professionals isn't that risky because most of them are already vaccinated. In a survey last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 81% of college-educated adults said they had gotten their shots, and only 9% said they definitely wouldn't. But among those without college degrees, only 61% said they had been vaccinated — and 17% said they were dead set against it.

That means there's a terrible irony at the heart of America's economic recovery. With labor so scarce, workers have the freedom to leave jobs they don't like — including jobs that require them to get a vaccine they don't want. Sadly, the same boom that is helping millions of Americans win raises, promotions, and greater job security is also deterring employers from protecting those very workers from the deadliest pandemic in a century. It's one more way the coronavirus has exacerbated disparities between the working and professional classes. 

As workplaces reopen, employers ought to be mandating vaccines for all of their employees. It's the single most effective way to protect everyone from harm as they return to their jobs. It's also very much in the interest of corporate America since a vaccinated workforce would help prevent costly and disruptive workplace outbreaks. It shouldn't be a hard call: After all, companies make decisions that are unpopular with their workers all the time. But in the twisted logic of today's job market, employers are failing to impose the most urgent mandate of all. Most require their workers to come to work wearing shoes. Yet they don't require them to be vaccinated against a virus that could kill their coworkers and customers.

"A lot of companies don't want to be the first ones to roll this out with their frontline workers," Karen Mulligan, a research assistant professor of health policy at the University of Southern California and co-author of a white paper on employer mandates, told me. "It's about employers providing their employees with a safe workplace and instilling confidence so people are comfortable coming into work."

Mandates work 

Conservatives may be up in arms about vaccine mandates, but they were widely adopted for years before COVID-19. Schools, for instance, require students to complete a variety of pediatric vaccines before they enroll, and many healthcare providers require staff to get their seasonal flu shots. The research on such mandates is clear: They work. States that require students to get the meningococcal vaccine and Tdap booster have vaccination rates more than 20 percentage points higher than states where vaccination is voluntary. And at hospitals that introduce flu-shot mandates, vaccination rates jump to levels just shy of 100%. 

There's good reason to believe that employer mandates would have the same effect on COVID-19 vaccinations. In March, Houston Methodist Hospital became one of the first big employers to require coronavirus vaccines. It faced protests from staffers, more than 150 of whom were fired or quit, and got slapped with a lawsuit. But remarkably, 97% of its workforce ended up complying — and the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, who ruled that Houston Methodist was "trying to do their business of saving lives."

A woman holding a sign that says "no job is worth dieing for!" stands close to a man
Demonstrators protested a vaccine mandate at Houston Methodist Hospital — but almost 100% of employees complied. 
Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

Early on, healthcare providers and universities were some of the only institutions that took the step of requiring the vaccine. But over the past few weeks, more employers have announced mandates, as they are alarmed by a new wave of infections caused by the far more transmissible Delta variant. The biggest one came from the federal government, which now requires all civilian employees and contractors to get vaccinated or face weekly testing and other safety protocols. The military has followed suit, as have states like California, New York, Virginia, and Washington and white-collar employers like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Morgan Stanley.

But many manufacturers with big blue-collar workforces, such as Ford, General Motors, General Electric, and Caterpillar, aren't mandating COVID-19 shots. Neither is Amazon, the country's second-largest private employer. Uber and Lyft, like Walmart, are requiring their corporate employees to get vaccinated but aren't imposing a mandate on their drivers — frontline workers who are exposed to millions of passengers in enclosed spaces every day. "The uneven policy could eventually lead to some pretty distorted outcomes," USC's Mulligan told me.

In explaining the decision to CNBC, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sidestepped a question about whether compelling the drivers to get vaccinated would exacerbate its labor shortage, which has forced it to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attract more workers. Instead, he said he was uncomfortable making a decision about vaccines on behalf of so many people.

"When you get to the numbers in the hundreds of millions, which is what we're talking about as far as riders and drivers go, to put that responsibility, that kind of decision-making power, on a company I don't think is right," he said. "I think these mandates if they're pushed, should be pushed by local or federal governments."

Government vs. employer mandates

It's a bit rich, given how Uber has worked to dominate the market, for the company to claim that its size is the reason it can't make a simple decision to protect its employees and the public at large. But Khosrowshahi is right that only the government has the power to create a level playing field. If the federal government made every US citizen get a vaccine, Uber wouldn't have to worry about losing its vaccine-hesitant drivers to Lyft, and vice versa.

The federal government, according to constitutional scholars, probably doesn't have that kind of legal authority. But state and local governments do, under a 1905 Supreme Court ruling that upheld Massachusetts' right to require residents to get the smallpox vaccine. While some states have banned mandates altogether, others are finally moving to require vaccines for certain professions, especially in high-risk settings. California and Washington have mandated COVID-19 shots for healthcare workers, and Massachusetts is requiring them for employees at nursing homes, 25% of whom remain unvaccinated, according to officials.

Absent government mandates, the next best thing would be for leading employers to require vaccinations with the support of industry groups and labor unions, which would help create sector-wide norms. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has approved employer mandates, as long as they include exemptions for disability and religion. The American Medical Association and the AFL-CIO have come out in strong support of mandatory vaccines, and the mandate for federal employees has received the support of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. "More than 627,000 Americans are dead," the union said, "and we don't want any more of our members dying."

A respiratory therapist working with a patient lying in a bed in the ICU.
By issuing vaccine mandates, employers could help stem the alarming new surge of COVID-19 cases. 
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Unfortunately, several large labor unions have decided to prioritize bargaining rights over the safety of their members. The United Auto Workers has said it's against mandates, and other unions have pushed back against employer-imposed plans that weren't negotiated in advance. But in the face of the powerful Delta variant, there are signs that the resistance may not last. On Sunday, the American Federation of Teachers backtracked on its opposition to mandates. "The circumstances have changed," Randi Weingarten, the president of the union, said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "As a matter of personal conscience, I think that we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates."

The good news is, a few companies with big blue-collar workforces are moving ahead with mandates. Tyson Foods announced last week that it ordered its 120,000 employees to get their shots, setting a deadline of October for office workers and November for plant workers, who will receive a $200 bonus. Before the announcement, the company reported, just under half its workforce had been vaccinated — a stark indication of how persuasion and incentives have failed to boost the rate among low-wage workers. But within a week of the mandate, Tyson reported, more than 5,000 workers had received their shots.

What we need now, desperately, is for more companies like Tyson to embrace mandates. At this point, even if the employers of every single office worker in the country were to mandate the vaccine, the effect would be marginal: In the Kaiser Family Foundation survey, only 5% of college-educated adults said they're on the fence about vaccines or could be compelled by a mandate. But among those with less schooling, the movable share was 16% — making employer mandates one of the most powerful tools in the fight against COVID-19.

Mandates could also turn out to be a powerful tool for recruiting new employees. As hospitalizations and deaths continue to soar in the face of the Delta variant, the promise of a COVID-19-free workplace could become one of the most sought-after job benefits of the pandemic era. "People value being in a workplace where they're confident that their coworkers have all been vaccinated," Mulligan, the USC professor, said. "I think there actually is more broad support for mandates than some employers realize." Sure, some employees may leave in the face of a vaccine mandate. But by creating a common standard for vaccinations, as they do for so many other issues, business leaders can help ensure that they lose fewer workers to the job market than they do to the coronavirus.