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A Covid underclass is forming

·Senior Columnist
·5-min read
Colorado Governor Jared Polis pulls the wraps off a check for Peter Vegas of Boulder, Colo., who was announced as the third of five weekly $1-million winners for being vaccinated against COVID-19 during a news conference Friday, June 18, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Colorado Governor Jared Polis pulls the wraps off a check for Peter Vegas of Boulder, Colo., who was announced as the third of five weekly $1-million winners for being vaccinated against COVID-19 during a news conference Friday, June 18, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Most Americans will do simple, reasonable things to get ahead. So perhaps it’s a new phenomenon that a stubborn slice of the workforce seems wiling to forego prosperity for dubious bragging rights.

More than 150 hospital workers in Houston are out of a job after refusing to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Houston Methodist Hospital required all workers to get vaccinated, and most did. The holdouts insisted the vaccine requirement was a violation of their rights, and they sued for the right to stay on the job, unvaccinated. A judge dismissed the suit on June 12, calling it frivolous, and 153 workers either quit or got fired.

More Covid workplace disputes are simmering. Employees of the Los Angeles school district have sued for the right to work unvaccinated. There are similar suits in a North Carolina police department and a New Mexico detention center. At the same time, more companies are requiring vaccines for workers who want to return to the office, including Morgan Stanley and the Saks department store. Many others are offerings workers incentives to get vaccinated without requiring inoculation, but those could become mandates, too, as the migration back to the office picks up steam.

These vaccine disputes may be isolated, for now, but as the bulk of the economy gets back to normal, vaccine-resistance could consign some workers to a new post-pandemic underclass. In early June, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission validated an earlier rule saying employers have the right to require their workers to get vaccinated, except in unusual circumstances. Many employers are probably trying incentives first, to minimize conflict with workers. But once that has run its course, many firms may lose patience and require vaccinations. Their lawyers may even advise they have an obligation to do so, to minimize the odds of workers contracting Covid on company property.

About 64% of adult Americans have gotten at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. But 24% of adults say they don’t plan to get vaccinated, according to Gallup. If the portion of working adults who don’t want to get vaccinated is the same, that would total around 36 million unvaccinated workers. Some may work at firms that don’t particularly care, but many of those 36 million seem headed for a clash that could leave them marginalized at work or out of a job altogether.

Some employers are likely to let vaccine resisters work from home, if the nature of the work allows, while others return to the office. There was no stigma to working from home when everybody was doing it. But there may be a stigma when few are doing it. Remote workers will miss out on the many casual chats that keep workers looped in. They may also seem less committed than other workers. For unvaccinated workers who do return to the office, firms may require them and them alone to wear masks and stay 6 feet from co-workers. Imagine if those unvaxed workers need to follow special rules to ride the elevator. It’s hardly the right way to stand out at the office.

First lady Jill Biden talks to a COVID-19 vaccination recipient at a COVID-19 clinic at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AP)
First lady Jill Biden talks to a COVID-19 vaccination recipient at a COVID-19 clinic at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Pool via AP)

Unvaccinated at the office

It also seems inevitable that companies will part ways with some strident anti-vaxers. There’s already tension among vaxed and unvaxed people occupying the same space in public venues, retail outlets and family settings. Companies don’t need unnecessary stress among workers and they’re likely to consider their unvaxed staffers the troublemakers.

At the moment, a shortage of workers in many sectors may lead employers to tolerate eccentrics on the roster. But the labor shortage is likely to ease as Covid recedes, jobless benefits expire and schools reopen. There could be 10 million workers or more streaming back into the workforce in coming months, and it’s plausible that employers could replace unvaccinated workers with vaccinated ones, if skills match up. Again, unvaxed workers could become a legal liability and management challenge, prompting managers to play up other deficiencies to build a case for replacing them.

Photo by: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 6/20/21 Madison Square Garden opens up again at 100% capacity for a show by The Foo Fighters. Only fans who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were admitted into the arena.
Photo by: STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 6/20/21 Madison Square Garden opens up again at 100% capacity for a show by The Foo Fighters. Only fans who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were admitted into the arena.

In lawsuits over the issue, unvaccinated plaintiffs have argued that they shouldn’t be required to get a vaccine not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But the FDA’s emergency use authorization is the legal equivalent of full approval. Other cases assert religious reasons objections to vaccines, but judges have been skeptical of that, too.

There’s also a political undercurrent to vaccine resistance, with nearly half of Republicans resisting vaccines but only 6% of Democrats saying no. Republicans may insist they have the freedom to forego vaccinations, but companies also have the freedom to hire more agreeable workers. In this instance, regulators and the courts seem to be saying companies’ freedoms trump workers’. Americans may have the right to make their own health care decisions, but that doesn't entitle them to a job. 

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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