In some states, only 3% of small businesses are requiring their employees to be vaccinated.

Chris Lambert, a small business owner in Indiana, says he has encouraged his eight employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But for a variety of reasons – including the fact that 90% of them are already inoculated – he has not taken the step that so many in his position are grappling with across the country.

“I do want to give the employees the choice, because I do ultimately believe it is theirs,” says Lambert, who owns Christopher James Menswear, an upscale clothier in Fort Wayne. “I’ve given them as much information as possible to allow them to make an educated decision.”

“I don’t want to force them to do so,” he adds. “I wish that they all would be vaccinated.”

Lambert is hardly the only small business owner in his state who is declining to mandate the vaccine for workers. Only 3.3% of small businesses in Indiana required employees to have proof of COVID-19 vaccination before physically coming to work over a recent weeklong stretch – the smallest percentage among the more than 30 states that reported data, according to a report released on Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey. Nationwide, only about 13% of such businesses require workers to show proof of inoculation, according to the census statistics, which were collected between Dec. 6 to 12. The bureau defines small businesses as having fewer than 250 employees and less than $5 million in revenue.

States in the Northeast and on the West Coast are more likely to see small businesses mandate employee vaccination, while Southern and Midwestern states are less likely, according to the bureau. Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee join Indiana in having some of the lowest rates of small businesses requiring vaccine proof for their employees. California, New York and Washington are among those with the highest rates.

But even the highest percentages in states aren’t that high. Only one state – Hawaii – has more than 25% of small businesses requiring vaccine mandates for employees. Puerto Rico has an even higher rate of 40%.

The bureau has noted that results from the Small Business Pulse Survey “are experimental data products” and might not meet some of its “statistical quality standards,” but nevertheless “give local, state and federal officials essential real-time data to aid in policy and decision-making.” It’s also possible these rates could change as the pandemic continues and the presence of the omicron variant leads to a possible winter wave of cases.

Data released on Tuesday by Small Business Majority, an organization that advocates for small business owners, shows that 21% of small businesses surveyed are considering requiring all or some of their employees to be vaccinated.

The differences in rates by region are partly influenced by the restrictions or requirements already in place from state and county or municipal governments, says Brian Pifer, the vice president of programs and research at Small Business Majority. A mandate from President Joe Biden that businesses with 100 or more employees require vaccination or weekly COVID-19 testing is currently being held up in the courts.

The regional trend doesn’t surprise Carmel Shachar, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics. The differences follow the same pattern seen with other pandemic public health measures, she says, in which states where there are fewer mask requirements or lower vaccination rates are also the ones “that are being really supportive of employee pushback against vaccine mandates.”

She adds: “I think the politicization of public health has a lot to do with it. But then I think some of it also goes to different areas of our country have different traditions and different cultural assumptions when it comes to balancing public health, individual liberties, respect for scientific expertise.”

Businesses may also have more pragmatic reasons for deciding not to require employees to get vaccinated, says Kevin Brinegar, the president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. They may have concerns about employee pushback, creating morale problems and other “things that they just would rather not deal with,” such as “fear of litigation,” he says.

“Small businesses don’t have big budgets to cover unexpected litigation,” he adds. “So they’d like to avoid that as well. Plus, they don’t have the time.”

Lambert, of Christopher James Menswear, adds a related concern: staffing issues amid a still-recovering economy.

“I would find that a lot of employers would be concerned because of the challenges finding employees, that if they mandated their employees be vaccinated, that could cause them to lose people,” he says.

On the other end of the spectrum, the reasons why Hawaii has such a high percentage of businesses requiring proof of vaccination – more than 31%, according to the census survey – aren’t fully clear. Multiple small businesses based in the state declined interview requests to discuss their employee vaccination policy. But mandates from local governments – such as Safe Access Oahu, a program started by the mayor of Honolulu – have definitely played a role, says Sherry Menor-McNamara, the president and CEO of Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.

A survey released in October by the University of Hawaii’s Economics Research Organization and the Pacific Alliance Against COVID-19 found that more than 60% of businesses had imposed a mandate for their workers to get tested or be vaccinated against the virus after government orders in September.

More broadly, Hawaii’s higher rate could come down to something intangible – the people of the islands being “community-oriented,” the chamber president adds.

“Many businesses recognize that, in order to move forward together, we need to increase the vaccination rates to the extent possible,” says Menor-McNamara, who recently announced her candidacy for lieutenant governor. “And so that’s why we have seen momentum amongst small to the largest businesses mandating these types of vaccines, or at the very least requiring tests on a weekly basis.”

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