The University of Pennsylvania Health System wants “to set an example for those who remain hesitant” by requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept 1.
The health system’s move could encourage other employers to follow suit, said Neil Goldfarb, president and chief executive of the Greater Philadelphia Business Coalition on Health.
It make sense that a health system would lead on this because the ill population it serves is at particular risk of COVID-19, said Goldfarb, whose group will be holding an event Monday for members on vaccine promotion and policy, and mask mandates in the workplace.
“I think we’ll see health-care organizations moving with mandates first, and then broadening to other employers with a lot of direct contact with the public, such as retailers and transport workers,” Goldfarb said. “This may ultimately lead to broader implementation of mandates across the full spectrum of employers.”
A wide range of the Philadelphia region’s largest and most prominent employers — Campbell Soup Co. Cooper University Health Care, Independence Blue Cross, Rivers Casino, Temple University Health System, Vanguard Group Wawa, and Wells Fargo — said Wednesday that they are encouraging but not requiring employees to be vaccinated.
“With nearly 80% of Cooper University Health Care’s team members fully vaccinated, we are not considering mandating COVID-19 vaccines at this time,” a Cooper spokesperson said.
Two health systems, Doylestown Health, and Jefferson Health, said they are evaluating whether to require vaccination. Temple said it is closely monitoring the situation.
Independence, the region’s largest health insurer, has no vaccine mandate, but will allow only vaccinated employees back into the company’s headquarters at 19th and Market Streets in Center City when the company starts bringing employees back to the office in September, a spokesperson said.
Among the employers Penn Health could influence is its university parent. The University of Pennsylvania is requiring students to be vaccinated for the fall, but, as of now, not faculty and staff. The university is still considering a mandate for faculty and staff.
Only about a third of adults are vaccinated at the moment. In Philadelphia, just 34.5% of residents age 16 and older are fully vaccinated.
If more private employers decide to require employees to be vaccinated, they will be on firm legal ground, given the more than 100 years of history supporting vaccine mandates as important public health measures, said Eric Feldman, a professor at Penn’s law school.
“It’s pretty clear with the COVID-19 vaccine that it meets the baseline of promoting the public health with flying colors, and private employers are able to impose all sorts of requirements and restrictions on employees, and this one is not running afoul in any way that I see of the Civil Rights Act or other protected groups or classes,” Feldman said.
Some employment lawyers have their eye on complications under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December said that companies may require employees to be vaccinated. But they still have to accommodate employees who exercise an exemption to the vaccine mandate under the ADA, said Mike Schmidt, a labor and employment lawyer in Cozen O’Connor’s New York office.
That’s one of the two big reasons many employers are hesitant to mandate vaccines. “I think companies don’t want to deal with the accommodation issue and drawing lines and dealing with the legal nuance and then the inevitable lawsuits that will come from that,” Schmidt said.
Another reason most companies are reluctant to impose a vaccine requirement is that it could paint them into a corner, Schmidt said. “If you have this mandatory policy, and let’s say 30% of your workforce doesn’t want to get vaccinated, are you prepared to enforce your policy and terminate 30% of your workforce?”
Still, Schmidt said he, too, expects to see more mandates. “As we get closer to the fall, certainly as we get closer to the end of the year, I think more companies are going to go from just thinking about it to perhaps requiring vaccination.”