President Biden’s new vaccine mandate for large employers is a “huge” step forward in Hawaii’s fight against the coronavirus, and likely will lead to vaccine requirements for more than 85% of the workforce here, according to an economist who surveyed local employers on the issue.
While the new federal mandate affects only large employers, a recent survey of Hawaii small businesses found that smaller employers are willing to adopt a mandate “once large businesses impose a mandate, or the government made it clear that this was legal,” said Ruben Juarez, a University of Hawaii-Manoa economics professor.
That strongly suggests there will be a ripple effect in Hawaii from Biden’s announcement Thursday that the federal government will require vaccinations or regular testing for all employees at companies with more than 100 workers.
Most private employees in Hawaii work for small businesses, but “this will likely move small businesses on the edge to adopt a mandate,” Juarez said.
Hawaii has 791 employers with 100 or more employees, and those companies employ 246,874 workers covered by the new vaccination and testing mandate.
That is about 45% of the state’s total employee count of 553,206, according to U.S. Census data from 2019.
Another 32,098 Hawaii companies have 99 or fewer employees, and Hawaii survey data published late last month by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and the Pacific Alliance Against COVID-19 shows a third of those small businesses already have vaccine mandates in place.
Even before Biden’s edict on Thursday, the survey found another 28% of Hawaii small businesses reported they “probably or definitely” will impose vaccination requirements for their workers.
The survey included 884 businesses — the vast majority of them on Oahu — with over 80% of the businesses that participated reporting that over 80% of their employees are already fully vaccinated.
Gov. David Ige has already required state and county workers to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, and Ige announced Thursday that state contractors and people visiting state facilities must also be vaccinated or show a negative Covid-19 test result.
A number of Hawaii medical facilities have also imposed vaccine requirements, and Biden announced Thursday that any health care facility that receives federal Medicaid or Medicare funding will also be subject to the new vaccination and testing requirements.
There have been public protests and court filings to try to push back against the employer mandates, including a federal court case filed on behalf of Honolulu firefighters, paramedics and police who object to the city’s vaccination requirement.
But Juarez said local research strongly suggests that employer vaccination mandates are the best path to follow through the pandemic.
Juarez is the co-director of the Pacific Alliance Against COVID-19, and data collected by that organization indicate the two main reasons people don’t get vaccinated are misinformation from social media and mistrust in the government and institutions.
“These two are very difficult to change, and given the dire situation that the state is in — especially in regards to hospitalizations and continued community spreading — mandates would be the only way to increase vaccination,” he said.
The UHERO survey found the main reason businesses did not impose a vaccine mandate was employee resistance, which was cited by 39% of the companies surveyed.
Some observers have worried that skilled workers may quit their jobs rather than submit to vaccination mandates or testing, but Juarez strongly disagrees.
With all of the mandates in place or being planned, “vaccine-hesitant employees won’t have many options to be employed, and even the most vaccine-hesitant employees would think twice before quitting their jobs,” he said.
Still, the UHERO survey found employers want support as they navigate the pandemic.
Nearly half of the businesses surveyed said they would like to receive Covid-19 education for their employees, and more than 23% said they would be willing to learn more about vaccination events for their employees.
Juarez said those issues are important, and hopefully can be addressed by the state and health care providers.
The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii is anticipating what challenges it will face to help its 2,000-plus members navigate the federal rules, once they are finalized.
Some with more resources might be in a better position to implement a mandate. Others have concerns over the cost of weekly Covid testing if employees refuse vaccines, Sherry Menor-McNamara, the chamber president, said.
Menor-McNamara doesn’t expect businesses to resist the new mandates.
She noted that many of Hawaii’s largest employers have already required their employees to get vaccinated, including most hospitals and large banks.
“The details and logistics are important,” Menor-McNamara said. “It’s how they implement it and make sure they have all the resources lined up to make sure they implement it effectively.”
There’s no timeline for the U.S. Department of Labor to finalize the federal mandate, but violations could cost companies a $14,000 fine.
Earlier this year, the chamber polled its members on vaccine mandates, and 57% of respondents said they did not plan to implement such rules. However, when the chamber followed up with businesses, the group found that some employers marked “no” because most of their workers were already vaccinated.
That survey was also conducted before the Food and Drug Administration gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval.
The survey also found that some businesses worried over losing employees who might resist getting a vaccine.
State economist Eugene Tian said that’s a possibility. But he doesn’t believe that number will be significant across the private sector or increase the unemployment rate by much.
Another potential impact could be that workers who refuse vaccinations may be required to work from home, increasing the number of employees abandoning physical office spaces.
Tian said his office is undertaking a study to determine how many employees are working remotely and what industries have been impacted the most.
Tian expects the vaccine mandate to boost Hawaii’s vaccination rate. After Gov. David Ige mandated vaccines for government workers, the vaccination rate among state employees increased from 87% to 92%, Tian said.
“From my point of view, the benefits outweigh the negatives,” Tian said.
But not everyone has such a positive outlook.
Opposition groups, some which have spread misinformation about the vaccine and pandemic online and in public hearings, have held rallies pushing back against the government mandates.
Gary Cordery, director of the Aloha Freedom Coalition, said his organization is not against vaccines, but does not support the Biden administration’s proposals to force vaccines on employees.
“I don’t think the businesses should do that,” Cordery said. “I think the businesses should stand for their employees.”
To do otherwise would go against the “foundational principles of our Constitution,” Cordery said.
Among the staunch opponents of the new federal mandate is Thomas Mikcarek, 72, a Waialua resident who said he has been trying for years to alert the public to what he believes is the harm caused by vaccines.
“President Biden doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, doesn’t have a clue about the dangers of vaccines, doesn’t have a clue about the fact that what he just pronounced is illegal,” Mikcarek said.
“The people that I am in association with are going to take it very badly, and do everything they can to stop it.”