Workplace

Tech CEOs were wary of vaccine mandates. That's changing.

Most large tech companies are still "encouraging, but not requiring" employees to get vaccinated. But interest in vaccine mandates has jumped since California said vaccinated workers could take off their masks.

Syringe

Recent surveys have found that a majority of professionals support vaccine mandates at the office, but that most employers aren't imposing them.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong / Protocol

Most tech giants say they'll "encourage, but not require" employees to get vaccinated before returning to the office. But as more companies reopen their doors, four software makers now say they'll turn away unvaccinated workers.

Adobe, VMware, Twilio and Asana are all mandating vaccines for those who come in this summer, the four companies said in June. That's a departure from a norm that industry leaders like Google and Facebook set earlier this year.

"A few months ago, it was very much like, 'We don't want to do that. We don't want to require vaccinations,'" said Sheeva Ghassemi-Vanni, a partner in the employment practices and litigation groups of the Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick & West.

That's still the norm: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft are among the big names that are not imposing vaccine mandates.

But in the last few weeks, Ghassemi-Vanni has been fielding more calls from clients who want to know how they can require employees to get vaccinated, which potential legal issues they need to avoid and how to accommodate employees who refuse.

"It's not a total pendulum swing at this point, but it's definitely gaining momentum," Ghassemi-Vanni said. "I'll be interested to see, in the fall and then through Q1 of 2022, what employers end up doing."

Soft vax summer

Indeed, some companies are tying their vaccine mandates to "soft reopenings" this summer, where in-office work is allowed even as most employees continue working from home. Some of those mandates may lift by the time offices fully reopen in the fall or winter.

Salesforce, for example, reopened its offices in San Francisco and New York to small groups of vaccinated employees this spring. Those who are unvaccinated can come in during later reopening stages, Salesforce said.

Adobe and Asana — which are both mandating vaccines this summer — said they would continue to assess the need to impose this rule based on the safety risks and government guidance and regulations.

Asana said this reassessment would come "as we approach the fall," when the productivity software company plans to open a new headquarters in San Francisco.

Why vaccine mandates are gaining steam

Employers seem to be getting more confident about requiring the vaccine thanks to recent mandates and guidance from local, state and federal agencies, Ghassemi-Vanni said.

First came an FAQ from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which says anti-discrimination laws don't bar employers from requiring on-site workers to get vaccinated. (They still have to accommodate those who refuse for religious or medical reasons.)

Then, last month, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) said vaccinated employees could go without masks at the workplace.

"I think that has really prompted this. That is where I've seen the most uptick in inbound calls," Ghassemi-Vanni said, adding that companies seem to be reasoning that "if our vaccinated employees can go maskless, even better of an incentive to have them be vaccinated."

Do employees want vaccine mandates?

Recent surveys have found that a majority of professionals support vaccine mandates at the office, but that most employers aren't imposing them.

In February, a Glassdoor survey of more than 2,000 U.S. employees found that 70% supported making vaccines a requirement to return to the office.

There's some evidence that tech workers are more receptive to vaccine mandates than other professionals: More than 80% of techies told Qualtrics in March that they supported mandates, compared with two-thirds of the general population of workers who responded.

Yet 90% of employers that Rocket Lawyer surveyed in April said they would not mandate the vaccine (or were undecided).

Ghassemi-Vanni said her clients who have done internal surveys have heard from employees that they want a vaccinated office.

"In most cases, companies and their employees have said, 'We want everybody to be vaccinated,'" Ghassemi-Vanni said. "There's still, interestingly, a bit of hesitation by employers — for obvious reasons — to require vaccinations to come into the office, even though they legally can do that."

Passports, please

Companies are also split on whether to require employees to show proof of vaccination before they come to the office.

Out of the four companies that have told Protocol they're imposing vaccine mandates, only Asana said they would need to see proof of employees' vaccination status. Adobe, Twilio and VMware all said they would take employees at their word.

And since the new Cal/OSHA guidance came out, many large companies say their vaccinated employees can go maskless at California offices. (One holdout here is Intel, which still requires its employees to wear masks rather than police who's vaccinated and who's not.)

That brings up another question for companies: Should employees have to prove they're vaccinated if they want to go without a mask, or is it enough to just say they've received the vaccine?

Either approach is allowed under Cal/OSHA's guidance, Ghassemi-Vanni said.

In California, Facebook, Google and Amazon all require employees to prove their vaccine status before going mask-free at the office. Microsoft, Adobe and ServiceNow, on the other hand, are not requiring vaccine proof when it comes to masks.

For its part, Hewlett Packard Enterprise said it came down to trust: The Houston-based IT giant told Protocol in a statement that it was "counting on the integrity and professionalism of its team members to follow the rules if they are unvaccinated."

But to make more employees feel safe returning to the office, Ghassemi-Vanni's group has been advising clients to go the extra mile and require employees to have a vaccine card on file, both if they want to come to the office and if they want to take off their mask.

"If you're having vaccinated employees come to the office and not wear masks, you are better served getting a copy of that record," Ghassemi-Vanni said. "Then you know that they have been vaccinated, and your employee population — if you communicate that that's how you're verifying it — they will feel more confident in being in the office."

Update: An earlier version of this story said that Twilio was requiring employees to show proof of vaccination. It has been updated.

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