Requiring vaccinations in the workplace and other public spaces is nothing new. In an opinion authored in 1905, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan helped to establish a legal precedent that would empower public and private entities to mandate vaccination for the benefit of public health. The case was Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Written in the aftermath of a smallpox epidemic, at a time when infectious diseases were a leading cause of death in the United States, the decision of the court upheld a Massachusetts law that allowed local boards of health to impose vaccine mandates for their residents.
Today, as local governments and private employers begin to determine their own COVID-19 vaccination policies and many prepare to return to in-person work, here is some perspective into how and why we made the decision to require the COVID-19 vaccine for our company, Rocket Lawyer.
Learning from History
While the smallpox vaccine has its own long history, dating back to its invention in the late eighteenth century, the Jacobson decision was an important inflection point that would eventually contribute to the eradication of the disease in 1980. After an estimated total of 500 million deaths (~5 million per year) in the final century of its existence, smallpox was not only the first human disease to have a vaccine, but it was also the first to be globally eliminated, due in part to mandated vaccination in the United States and abroad. While it is impossible to know the exact number of lives saved to date, it could easily be more than 200 million.
With confirmed COVID-19 deaths surpassing 4.5 million, and estimated excess deaths potentially doubling that figure, it is no surprise that government and business leaders are taking action to stop the scourge. As of September 2, 2021, only 61% of the U.S. population over twelve years old has been fully vaccinated. If we want to end this pandemic, we must get more people vaccinated—and employers who care about the health and well-being of their teams, customers, and communities should be doing what they can to assist. Life is too precious to stand by and let history repeat itself.
Learning from Science
"This is an American tragedy. People are dying and will die who don’t have to die. If you’re out there unvaccinated, you don’t have to die."
- President Biden, July 29, 2021
While it may seem that all deaths are 'untimely' to some extent, studies show that the pandemic has actually decreased the U.S. life expectancy, with African Americans and Latinx people seeing a decrease of more than 3 years. Of course, virus-related deaths are just one contributing factor. Inequity in access to healthcare and general disruption to other healthcare services have played a role, as well. Vaccines, on the other hand, have improved the average life expectancy in the United States throughout the last century.
As the Delta variant of the virus continues to wreak havoc around the world, spreading faster than smallpox and just as contagious as chickenpox, vaccination will be critical to slowing the mutation of the virus and combating the new surge of preventable, untimely deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while breakthrough infections can happen among the fully vaccinated, "the greatest risk of transmission is among unvaccinated people."
Virology aside, I would be remiss not to pause for a moment to reflect on how incredibly privileged we are to live in an age where a vaccine to prevent a deadly disease can be developed and distributed in such a short time. I applaud the dedicated scientists and inventors like CRISPR Nobel laureates Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, among many, many others, whose discoveries have changed the course of the pandemic and saved countless lives already.
Learning from the Law
Even before vaccines were made publicly available, business owners have wanted to know: Is it legal for an employer to require a COVID-19 vaccination? The answer is yes, and it has been all along.
While some employers have waited for official statements on legality and safety from the Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, others have been holding out for the vaccines to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Even so, many U.S. employers have already taken the necessary precautions to protect the health of their teams and their communities at large, establishing vaccination policies and requiring proof of vaccination from their employees to ensure a safe return to in-person presence. While several large employers, such as Google, Microsoft, and Tyson, have made news with their announcements, small businesses and other private employers across the country are exercising their rights to do the same.
As the protectors of public health, federal, state, and local officials have also started announcing vaccination policies that will impact the employees of government agencies. With the FDA's recent approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and additional examples set forth by local governments and private companies, we should expect to see more business operators feel emboldened to take a firm stance in the battle against COVID-19.
To us, supporting the campaign for vaccination is not just a personal decision, it is an ethical responsibility. As leaders of hundreds of global employees, serving millions of small businesses and families, our team understands that vaccination is the only way that we can get beyond this pandemic and keep the world safe from a virus that has already caused enough grief and destruction. This is the duty we owe to our team, to our customers, and to humanity—and we don't take it lightly.
Originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse: Vaccine Mandates at Work: Why We Decided to Require the COVID-19 Vaccine
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.