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COVID-19 vaccine requirements not likely as Madison area businesses balance public health, liability
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COVID-19 vaccine requirements not likely as Madison area businesses balance public health, liability

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UW Health COVID Vaccine

As COVID-19 vaccines are distributed around the country, including at UW Health Hospital in Madison, employers are reluctant to mandate vaccines for employees, instead encouraging voluntary vaccinations when it becomes widely available. 

Though legally allowed under federal and state law, few — if any — major local employers plan to require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes widely available.

As vaccines for COVID-19 slowly roll out, businesses in Dane County see a light at the end of the tunnel for the economic disruptions of the pandemic. While businesses are making plans to encourage employees to get the vaccine, vaccines likely won’t be required for employees to return to the office.

At Epic Systems Corp., one of the area’s largest employers, employees often have to work in health-care settings to implement new software for clients. Brett Rehm, senior vice president of technical services, said some clients require certain vaccinations for Epic staff visiting those facilities.

“Our customers are healthcare organizations, and we follow their policies when providing services in patient care settings,” Rehm said. “For example, some customers require that our staff have a recent tuberculosis screening or a flu vaccine before traveling to their facilities. In the future they might require that our staff also have a COVID-19 vaccine.”

But otherwise, large local employers, including manufacturer Stoughton Trailers, grocer Metcalfe’s Market and biotech company Exact Sciences, are all using guidelines that do not require employee vaccination. Instead they will encourage employees to get the vaccine when available, but allow employees to decide whether they will.

One UW-Madison expert said that approach may lead to higher vaccination rates within a company than mandated shots.

UW Health, where some health care workers have already begun receiving the vaccination, also does not require employees to receive the vaccine, spokesperson Emily Kumlien said. Employees who decline the vaccine are required to fill out a form explaining the reason.

Metcalfe’s Market president Tim Metcalfe said he hopes essential workers, including grocery employees, will soon be able to get the vaccine in Wisconsin.

“We will make all our workers aware, but do not currently have a plan to mandate it,” Metcalfe said. “We will encourage them and make sure they have all the information necessary to get vaccinated.”

Legality, ethics, public health

Businesses have the authority under state law to require vaccinations for at-will employees, so long as there are religious and medical exemptions in place, Department of Health Services spokesperson Jennifer Miller said. That also follows federal guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Though the law allows employers to mandate vaccines, UW-Madison professor emerita of law and bioethics Alta Charo said requiring employees to get the shot could lead to pushback from employees who might get vaccinated on their own but bristle at the mandate.

“In the history of public health, we have frequently seen that voluntary compliance winds up more successful at the end than mandates,” Charo said.

Providing religious exemptions would also pose a challenge for employers if they mandated the vaccine, Charo said, because they would need to evaluate whether a religious doctrine really does prohibit vaccination and whether the person sincerely holds those beliefs.

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That doesn’t mean employers’ hands are tied when it comes to vaccinations. Charo said companies can create a wide array of incentives to get the vaccine, such as a day off to go to a clinic or offering on-site vaccinations, which many employers do for annual flu shots.

When the vaccine becomes widely available, Stoughton Trailers plans to offer it at its on-site clinics at its Stoughton, Evansville and Brodhead facilities, said Jeff Kratz, director of environmental health and safety at Stoughton Trailers.

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Along with reducing the spread of COVID-19 within a workplace, offering incentives could also protect businesses from negligence lawsuits. If the companies take many steps to ease the vaccination process, it could show that the employer took reasonable steps to prevent workers or customers from contracting the disease.

“It benefits you, it benefits your employees, and it also protects you from any liability claims,” Charo said of vaccine incentive programs.

Economic recovery for the area is dependent on maintaining community health as well as public confidence in businesses and the economic needs of those businesses, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon said. Giving employers the option to decide whether or not to require a vaccination will help businesses respond to their own needs as the pandemic continues.

“The acceleration of our recovery will ultimately be dictated by our ability to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Brandon said. “Especially in an emergency situation, we should provide flexibility — not limit options — to help businesses adapt and allow them to innovate to get through this unprecedented time.”

So far 49 board members of the Wisconsin Technology Council, the nonpartisan nonprofit that advises the governor and Legislature on science and technology issues, pledged they would each receive the vaccine as soon as available to them in a resolution Thursday.

Board members agreeing to get the vaccine include Promega chief scientific officer Randy Dimond, Kimberly Clark technical vice president and chief scientist Pete Dulcamara, Madison Development Corp. CEO Lorrie Keating-Heinemann and Venture Investors executive managing director John Neis.

“We hope by providing our own review of the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines, and by these individual board members and more pledging to get vaccinated when their time comes, we can provide a strong example and enhance public confidence,” tech council president Tom Still said.

The resolution also called on state elected officials to “adopt no legislation or make any collective statements that would serve to undermine the public’s confidence in the science behind the safety and effectiveness of the FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines.

Return to the office

The initial rollout of vaccines has yet to change the reopening plans for many local offices.

Exact Sciences and CUNA Mutual Group, which both said they don’t plan to require vaccinations for employees, said they have not changed their plans to bring employees back to the office yet, though they are regularly assessing when and how employees might return en masse.

“We are optimistic vaccines can help bring an end to this pandemic,” spokesperson Scott Larrivee said. “(We) are working with our teams to develop plans that take into account the many different roles at Exact Sciences, personal needs, and workplace safety.”

How and where to get COVID-19 vaccinations in Wisconsin

Some businesses, such as CUNA Mutual and Epic, have flexible options for employees, allowing them to work from home or from the corporate office with policies to limit the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing and face mask requirements.

“We look forward to the day when everyone can be back on campus and we can resume our normal travel to support healthcare organizations, but for now our staff can continue to choose to work from home or from the office,” Rehm said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the latest number of Wisconsin Technology Council board members who have pledged to receive a vaccine.


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