Brunello Cucinelli made an unusual offer to its employees this week: get vaccinated against Covid-19, or take six months of paid leave, making the Italian luxury brand the fashion industry’s first major company to require the shots.
So far, it’s still the only one.
Organisations ranging from the state of New York to Google have adopted vaccine mandates over the last few days. But most fashion brands and retailers are taking a gentler approach, encouraging employees to get the vaccine without requiring them to do so. Now, as the Delta variant spreads and infection rates spike in many countries, companies are considering harsher measures. Many view near-universal vaccination as the only path to fully reopening stores and offices, a crucial step for fashion brands in particular with design teams and retail workers who can’t do their jobs remotely.
Companies weighing a vaccine mandate are wading into a thicket of legal and ethical questions. Lawsuits against workplaces that require vaccines — and those that don’t — are likely in the coming months, experts say. At the same time, employers are chasing a moving target, with the Delta variant posing new risks to both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, and health officials debating the need for booster shots.
There is no one right approach. Each workplace must weigh the risks and benefits to their employees’ health, their appetite for legal risk and against how their individual business operates, said Blythe Adamson, an epidemiologist and economist who has helped retailers reopen amid the pandemic.
Understanding the scope of the challenge, and why some employees aren’t yet vaccinated, is a crucial first step. Brunello Cucinelli, for instance, was dealing with a small number of workers who had opted out of a company-wide vaccine campaign: less than one percent out of a team of 1,200. That made it easier to offer a relatively generous package to keep the unvaccinated out of the office.
If there is a low vaccination rate in your workforce — you need to figure out why.
“If there is a low vaccination rate in your workforce — you need to figure out why,” said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at the UC Hastings College of Law. “If the problem is lack of access, a mandate is the wrong answer. If you have a workforce that can’t take the time off to go get the vaccine, again, [a mandate] won’t help you. Maybe you’re better off collaborating with a [health] clinic, and having the clinic come in and offer [the vaccine].”
Why a Vaccine Mandate
One reason US employers are skittish about requiring Covid-19 vaccines is that they don’t yet have full regulatory approval. The US Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency use authorisation, allowing shots into arms, but hasn’t given the official green light that allows schools, government agencies and private workplaces to require vaccination against diseases like measles and tuberculosis. (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen have been granted EUA status by the FDA.)
This week, lawyers at the US Justice Department offered guidance indicating that federal law does not prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring Covid-19 vaccines, even with just the emergency authorisation.
The opinion could pave the way for more companies in the US to require employees to become vaccinated. Even so, a retailer that requires the vaccine could face legal claims from employees who experience a severe reaction to the shot. At the same time, a fashion firm that does not require the vaccine, but requires employees to work in person, could also face litigation in the event of a Covid outbreak at the office. (These legal claims are possible with any available vaccine, not just those with emergency use authorisation, said Reiss.)
But companies that are only worried about sidestepping a lawsuit, may be missing the bigger picture. Ultimately, they’ll need employees on board with their vaccine policy — whatever it is.
Nordstrom and Target are among the retailers offering financial compensation, free rides to vaccine sites and other incentives. Nordstrom said it is paying hourly workers four hours per dose while Target has been providing its hourly associates with two hours pay per vaccine dose as well as free Lyft rides to get to and from their vaccine appointments.
About 18 percent of US adults do not plan on receiving the Covid-19 vaccine and about 90 percent of those who reject inoculation fear potential side effects from the vaccine more than they fear the virus itself, according to a poll this month by YouGov and The Economist. These fears are largely fuelled by “overlapping misinformation narratives” and widespread confusion about the effectiveness of available vaccines against the Delta variant, according to the CDC’s latest COVID-19 State of Vaccine Confidence Insights Report.
To convince the most reluctant employees to get vaccinated, companies could tap an internal or external expert who those workers are likely to deem trustworthy, who can help dispel myths about the shots, Reiss said.
How to Make a Vaccine Requirement Work
Part of designing a vaccine mandate is figuring out how to track workers’ status. Companies will also need to think about which vaccines they will accept, which can get tricky for international firms where employees might receive a dose in their home country that isn’t approved in the nation where the corporate headquarters is located.
I don’t want it to be a barrier that retail groups don’t want to mandate vaccination because they don’t know how to confirm it.
Some are going beyond their home government’s guidance, Adamson said. She said some US retailers are now open to accepting AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is commonly given in Europe but is not authorised for distribution in America, for instance.
Next, companies will need to determine how to collect and store this information — without violating any laws meant to protect the privacy of health-related information. Some retailers have employees submit photos of their vaccination cards, or rely on state-run applications where residents can voluntarily upload their vaccination status. California’s app generates a QR code that employers can scan for proof of vaccination.
Others have employees sign a contract stating they are vaccinated, without requiring proof, sidestepping the need to collect health data at all, though this method also could unknowingly allow in some unvaccinated employees.
“I don’t want it to be a barrier that retail groups don’t want to mandate vaccination because they don’t know how to confirm it,” Adamson said. “Yes, there are ways around it, it’s not as hard as you think.”