How Employee Unrest Over Biden’s Vaccine Mandate Is Spilling Over to the Smallest Businesses



One of the unintended consequences of President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for companies with at least 100 employees has been protests and spiking resignation rates. But that’s also true among companies that aren’t required to mandate vaccines.

Firms with fewer than 100 workers are not required to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations among employees or submit to weekly testing, which is a ruling that goes into effect on January 4, 2022. However, many of them say they feel obliged to comply too. The backlash, some say, has been fierce.

Employees who may be hesitant to get vaccinated are walking out, and not coming back, while others are organizing strikes. Employers, newly in a bind, are now faced with either backtracking on their decision to mandate vaccinations or lose people.

Marilyn Gaskell knows precisely what it’s like to lose good workers in the middle of the Great Recession. While most of the 18 employees at her Phoenix search engine, TruePeopleSearch, got vaccinated without any issues, three employees were reluctant. In October, after top managers insisted they get the jab, all three of those hesitant employees walked out, sending resignation letters two days later. 

“This was a shocking moment for me,” says Gaskell, noting that the loss of three workers at once dealt a big blow to the organization. “It was chaotic,” she adds, “because it was difficult to find a good fit for the available jobs.”

Gaskell’s experience highlights the difficulty employers face nationally, as they take steps to ensure the safety of their employees and get back to business after nearly two years of pandemic slowdowns and work stoppages. 

Nearly 20 million U.S. workers left their jobs between April 2021 and August 2021, according to data from the Department of Labor. That’s more than 60 percent higher than the resignations over the same period last year, and 12 percent above the spring and summer of 2019 when the job market was the hottest it’s been in almost 50 years.

To ensure employees don’t just leave, leaders need to remain flexible, offer remote working and Covid-19 testing options and, in general, check their egos, says Meighan Newhouse, CEO and co-founder of Inspirant Group–a management consultancy that works with clients hatching plans to come back to the office. “If you have a strict mandate, you have to be prepared for top talent to walk out the door, because it’s an employee’s market right now and talented people and going to have their pick of the litter.” 

Plus, bear in mind that smaller employers weren’t included in Biden’s vaccine mandate policy for a few reasons. Two of which include the inability to stomach the loss of employees as easily as larger companies and the inability to afford to pay for regular Covid-19 testing, which can cost as much as $150 per test. Of course, the cost of employees getting sick may be infinitely more expensive, so the judgement call is understandably tough, suggests Newhouse.

Regardless of which path you take, try to control–as best you can–the things that can be controlled. For instance, if you’re concerned that employees may walk out over your vaccine policy, give them reasons to stay. Again, flexibility is vital but so, too, are career-development opportunities. If employees know their employer is supportive of their career goals, that might be reason enough to stay, says Newhouse. She adds that many clients are now hosting internal job boards, allowing employees to pick projects that they want to work on, similar to the way a gig worker might–and they’re promoting from within.

If you do end up in tricky territory after installing a mandate, it’s possible that vaccine-hesitant employees may still come back if you give them a good reason, which may not include backpedaling on your mandate, says Newhouse. Have a conversation, find out what motivates them, and do what you can. After all, even if it ends up costing you more to keep that worker, it may be cheaper than finding a new one. 



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