(NEW YORK) -- Once a touchy subject in the private sector, a new survey indicates that most firms are now planning on having COVID-19 vaccine mandates for their workforce.
The number of companies requiring workers to get the shot is expected to surge over the next several months, according to data released by Wednesday by Willis Towers Watson, a multinational advisory and insurance firm.
Over half of the employers surveyed (52%) said that by the fourth quarter of 2021, they could have one or more vaccine mandate requirements in the workplace. This ranges from requiring vaccinations for employees to access common areas (such as cafeterias) to requiring the jab for a subset of specific employees to requiring it for all employees. This is a major hike from the current 21% of firms that have some type of vaccine mandate in place for employees.
The survey was conducted between Aug. 18 and 25 -- in the wake of the insidious spread of the more contagious delta variant -- and respondents included nearly 1,000 U.S. employers that together employ nearly 10 million workers.
"The delta variant has made employers take new actions to keep their workers -- and workplaces -- safe and healthy. We expect even more employers to institute vaccine mandates in the wake of FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine," Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, the population health leader at Willis Towers Watson, said in a statement.
"This is not an easy situation for employers to navigate," Levin-Scherz added. "For instance, new policies such as tracking workers’ vaccinations can improve safety but also bring additional administrative requirements. At the same time, employers will continue efforts to encourage vaccination and communicate regularly with employees."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are imploring Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves and those around them from the virus that has left more than 600,000 dead in the U.S.
"COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective," the CDC states on its website. "Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history."
Still, vaccine requirements have emerged as a hot button issue for a vocal faction of Americans resisting the shot, despite the U.S. recording the highest number of coronavirus cases.
Breaking down the survey data further, some 29% of employers said they are planning or considering making vaccinations a requirement to gain access to the workplace, and some 21% are planning or considering vaccination as a condition of employment for all employees.
The number of firms that track or will track their employees' vaccination status is also rising, the data found. Some 59% of employers currently track their employees' vaccination status, and an additional 19% are planning or considering to do so later this year -- bringing the total to some 78% of employers.
Around 31% of employers are either offering or considering offering financial incentives to staff for getting vaccinated.
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission said employers can legally require COVID-19 vaccines to re-enter a physical workplace as long as they follow requirements to find alternative arrangements for employees unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons or because they have religious objections. Still, mandates have spurred showdowns and lawsuits from workers across the country.
Approximately 61.4% of the U.S. population 12 years of age and older are fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to CDC data, and some 72.2% have received at least one dose.
Separate from vaccine mandate plans, around 80% of respondents also said that they require employees to wear masks indoors at any location -- and an additional 13% are planning or considering doing so. A majority (75%) are also using workplace exposure tracing to alert employees to a potential exposure, with another 8% planning or considering doing so.
As for a return to normal, about 39% of companies now expect their organizations won't reach a "new normal" in terms of returning to the workplace and ending pandemic-related policies and programs until the second quarter of 2022. About a quarter (26%) expect a return to normal in the first quarter of 2022.