It’s been a few weeks now since President Joe Biden announced his federal vaccine mandate for nearly 100 million Americans, and it’s fair to say the move has provoked some controversy. Almost immediately, a clutch of Republican lawmakers made their feelings known, promising to “fight [Democrats] to the gates of hell” over their right to die horribly of a preventable disease. Arizona filed suit against the White House on the bizarre grounds that the mandate discriminated in favor of immigrants, and right-wing media outlets labeled the requirement to either have a free, safe, and effective vaccine or else take a COVID-19 test every week as “authoritarian”, “fascist”, “totalitarian” and “tyrannical”.
Among the more bombastic protests, however, was one more practical objection: surely, people said, if vaccination became a prerequisite for a job, then anti-vaxxers would simply resign.
It made sense on a superficial level, and the data seemed to support it too: one Washington Post-ABC poll showed nearly three-quarters of unvaccinated workers (without medical or religious exemption) would rather quit their job than get the vaccine, while another poll from KFF put the figure at 50 percent. Reports abounded of store employees rioting, healthcare workers walking out, and “dozens” of state troopers planning to resign when the mandate hit. In New York, an already-stretched health system braced itself for further losses.
But how well-founded were those fears? Was the country really facing a mass walk-out from the 59 million or so Americans over the age of 18 who are yet to be vaccinated?
“[It’s] easy and cost-free to tell a pollster you’ll quit your job,” write Jack Barry, Ann Christiano, and Annie Neimand, all from the University of Florida, in an article for academic news outlet The Conversation. “[A]ctually doing so when it means losing a paycheck you and your family may depend upon is another matter.”
And in practice, the authors explain, unvaccinated workers are much more likely to get vaccinated than leave their job.
“At Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh, New Jersey, only five of its 527 workers quit following its vaccine mandate,” they note. “Two out of 250 workers left Westminster Village in Bloomington, Illinois, and even in deeply conservative rural Alabama, a state with one of the lowest vaccine uptake rates, Hanceville Nursing & Rehab Center lost only six of its 260 employees.”
Despite fierce protests in Maine over mask and vaccine mandates, in the end, hospitals saw a whole 0.0025 percent of their workforce choose unemployment over vaccination. And let’s revisit those “dozens” of Massachusetts state troopers who promised to leave the force over vaccination requirements. How many went through with the threat? Just one.
As the authors of The Conversation piece point out, this isn’t a new phenomenon: other vaccine mandates exist, and they too often result in more people becoming immunized than unemployed. But if employers want to minimize the number who quit, they add, there are a few things they can do – building trust with their workforce, and making it as easy as possible to get the shot, would be two important steps. While they stress that good communication from trusted sources is key to helping employees make informed decisions, the authors confirm that companies are ultimately unlikely to see the massive walk-outs that certain polls have promised.
“[V]accine mandates are unlikely to result in a wave of resignations,” the authors conclude, “but they are likely to lead to a boost in vaccination rates.“