Federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates are still being fought out in court, but some leading corporate citizens are taking action on their own. In the latest development, Ikea is imposing a lower rate of sick pay for unvaccinated U.K. employees who test positive for the virus, and its actions could very well ripple into the U.S.
The Ikea decision is somewhat unique to the U.K., which requires companies to provide a minimum level of sick pay for workers. Companies can also offer sick pay that is far higher than the required minimum.
As reported by BBC and other U.K. media, effective this week Ikea will only provide sick leave at the higher, full pay rate for vaccinated employees who need to quarantine due to a breakthrough positive test. Unvaccinated employees with a pregnancy or other verifiable medical condition that prevents them from getting vaccinated will also qualify for full sick pay.
All other unvaccinated employees who test positive will receive the U.K. “Statutory Sick Pay” of only £96.35 per week, or about $130.00 USD.
In light of the relatively high rate of breakthrough infections attributed to Omicron variant, the Ikea decision appears to be an attempt to avoid rewarding irresponsible behavior during a pandemic. U.S. employers would do well to pay attention to the underlying theme of responsibility.
Vaccinated employees who test positive due to a breakthrough infection may not be symptomatic, but U.K. regulations still require them to isolate. Nevertheless, they have acted on the most reliable information available, namely, on the recommendations of public health experts. The Ikea decision rewards their responsible choices with full sick pay.
In contrast, employees who choose not to vaccinate have gambled their choice on their own preferred sources of information, or perhaps even no real information at all. Providing them with the higher level of sick pay would only serve to put the company’s seal of approval on irresponsible behavior. So, the Ikea decision punishes them with lower sick pay.
It’s possible that Ikea would prefer to provide no sick pay at all for unvaccinated-by-choice workers who test positive, but British labor law requires at least the minimum of £96.35.
Still, the Ikea decision should send a signal to other employers that are trying to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible behavior during a pandemic.
Unvaccinated employees pose a potential hazard to other employees, clients, and customers. They also undercut the entire concept of corporate wellness initiatives. Many companies have staked their reputation on promoting vaccination and enforcing other COVID-19 safety precautions in the workplace, only to have some of their own employees blow them off by choosing not to get vaccinated.
Here in the U.S., employers with vaccine mandates generally provide unvaccinated employees with a testing option to avoid termination. That movement gained support from President Biden, who ordered a January 10 deadline for all businesses with more than 100 employees to impose a vaccination mandate with a testing option. The order is in addition to a previous vaccination mandate for federal employees and contractors.
If those mandates are upheld in court, it would help create a more favorable legal environment for private sector employers to impose their own mandates, without a testing option.
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Citigroup, for one, is not waiting around. Last week, Reuters reported that Citigroup employees who are unvaccinated as of January 14 will be placed on unpaid leave and will be terminated by the end of the month. Other large financial services firms will most likely follow suit.
As with Ikea, the issue is fairness and responsibility. Banks and other large institutions are trying to get their remote workers to return to the office. Without a vaccine mandate, they face the prospect of vaccinated employees leaving their jobs in search of workplaces that do tacitly approve and enable irresponsible, potentially life-threatening behavior.
So far, very few high-profile businesses have ventured to fire unvaccinated employees. In combination with the Ikea decision, firm leadership from a large corporation like Citigroup could help spur others to act.
United Airlines is one of the few other examples of forceful corporate action. Last fall the company fired more than 200 unvaccinated workers. Other airlines had also expressed interest in mandates but later backed off.
Google could become the next. The company has reportedly provided for a January 18 deadline for vaccination, after which vaccinated employees will have 30 days of paid administrative leave to think it over. If that doesn’t do the trick, the company will offer a window of unpaid personal leave for as long as six months before termination.
The health care field has also begun to activate. Last week, for example, the nonprofit medical center Mayo Clinic fired approximately 700 unvaccinated employees, or about 1 percent of its workforce, after they missed a January 3 deadline for vaccine compliance.
Unfortunately, some public policy makers have gone out of their way to thwart a coordinated, effective national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Former President Trump failed to articulate a science-based approach in the first year of the virus, and his efforts to downplay the danger continued to ripple out on the level of state policy in 2021.
The impact on employers can be significant, depending on where their operations are located. For example, in most states, employer vaccine mandates are supported by state unemployment regulations that withhold benefits from workers fired due to vaccine non-compliance. That can provide significant motivation for workers to get vaccinated.
However, last fall the governors of Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee signed bills into law that provide benefits to unvaccinated workers who are fired. Forbes also reports that the state of Arkansas has joined the list.
Legal observers anticipate that the U.S. Supreme Court will not uphold the federal vaccine mandates. That would be more than a little ironic considering the repression of women’s reproductive rights expressed through conservative decision-making in the U.S. legal system.
Faced with these headwinds, corporate leaders will need to fight all the harder to articulate and enforce vaccination policies of their own that follow the science of public health and are rooted in responsibility and fairness.
Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker/Pxhere
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.