Business attorneys and a hospital CEO urged employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, at a Chamber of Commerce Hawai‘i webinar on Wednesday.

The Chamber does not have an official position on vaccines in the workplace. But its panelists, speaking on their own behalf, were adamant.

“I can tell you this in the simplest way, as it relates to containing the spread of this virus: vaccine is good. No vaccine is bad. It’s that simple,” said Ray Vara, president and CEO of Hawai‘i Pacific Health, which operates Wilcox Medical Center in Lihu‘e.

Novel coronavirus case numbers, buoyed by the delta variant and unvaccinated individuals, are surging throughout the islands and the mainland. The Hawai‘i Department of Health reported 647 new cases on Wednesday, raising the state’s cumulative case count to 52,846 since the start of the pandemic.

Vara’s health care network has mandated its employees get the jab or enter a routine testing protocol beginning Oct. 1.

Jeffrey S. Harris and John L. Knorek, directors of the Torkildson, Katz, Hetherington, Harris &Knorek law firm, commended the policy.

“I think the best answer is for the government to mandate vaccinations,” said Harris.

“If they don’t do that, my recommendation … is that you mandate vaccination for all employees and customers and others who enter,” Harris continued.

If the pandemic’s threat to public health and safety isn’t enough cause for action, business owners should also consider the economic implications of low vaccination rates, Knorek said.

“I hate to say it, but because there is no government mandate, the business community — if it wants to avoid being shut down again — has to take the lead,” Knorek argued. “If we’re going to hit herd immunity in the state, we’re going to have to take steps that basically force our employees to consider getting vaccinated if they want to work.”

Both attorneys claim private employers can make vaccination a requirement in the workplace, with exceptions for legitimate medical conditions and religious beliefs. Declining the shot due to personal feeling, or the federal Food and Drug Administration’s emergency approval of the vaccine, are not valid reasons and could be grounds for termination, they argued.

“The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the U.S. Justice Department all agree … I don’t think there’s any legal barriers to mandating the vaccine and terminating employees who refuse to take it for a non-protected reason,” Knorek said.

Religion is broadly defined under state and federal law, according to the attorneys, who said virtually any personal belief system counts.

However, unlike more stringent disability law, businesses are not obligated to provide more than minimal accommodation to employees who refuse the vaccine on religious grounds, Knorek said.

In all cases, he added, employers should begin a dialogue with workers seeking exemption from a vaccine mandate, to identify a reasonable accommodation.

Vara noted the vaccine’s approval status will soon become a non-issue.

“We would anticipate that the FDA is going to be granting full authorization here within the next couple of weeks,” he said.

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