Earlier this spring, as the three U.S. COVID-19 vaccines were becoming readily available, many of us thought we saw light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. As vaccination rates rose, we saw infection rates decrease and many thought that we were heading for a summer that would allow us to return to some form of normalcy. At that time, some health officials were expressing concern over a new mutation of the virus, the Delta variant. Much like the early warnings, many of us, eager to let our guard down and enjoy the activities of summer, paid little attention to these early warnings of the Delta variant. Fast forward just a couple of months and we find ourselves in a dire situation, the vaccination rate has slowed while the rate of infections has skyrocketed.
Life cycle of a virus
What caused the Delta variant? Viruses mutate as a normal course of their reproduction. When a virus reproduces it is very common for them to produce small mutations, or differences in their DNA. Most variants do not survive, however, occasionally a virus mutation results in a variant that not only survives but also thrives.
The Delta variant thrives in large part because it is far more transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the Delta variant is over two times as transmissible, results in more severe illness than the original COVID-19 virus, and although vaccinated people are far less likely to have severe illness from Delta, they can still be infected and transmit the virus.
On August 23, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first COVID-19 vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine. For many, the FDA final approval was the reassurance they were waiting for before getting the vaccine. As the Pfizer vaccine received final FDA approval, we immediately saw several public agencies and employers announce plans to require vaccination of their employees. The largest of these is the U.S. military, which already requires 17 inoculations for its service members when they enter the military or before they deploy overseas.
As our children returned to school, whether K-12 or college, we saw many educational institutions, both public and private, require vaccination of employees and, in the case of colleges, students. In addition to public employers, many healthcare providers are requiring vaccination for employees.
The list of private employers requiring vaccination is extensive and one can only imagine that it is only a matter of time before utilities begin doing so. UWUA locals are reporting employers requiring notification of the vaccination status of members.
The possibility of being required to provide notification of vaccination status, or even requiring vaccination, brings with it many questions. In his June legal update for UWUA officers, staff, and local union leaders, UWUA General Counsel David Radtke summarized the legal issues related to employers requesting vaccination status or requiring vaccination. To sum it up: requests for vaccination status in most cases do not violate the ADA or HIPPA. Regarding the possibility that an employer requires vaccination, the UWUA’s position is that such a requirement should be a subject of mandatory bargaining.
Understanding both sides
The UWUA knows that vaccination is a very contentious issue across the country. Our membership is no different. The UWUA understands both sides of the issue. We have members who believe that vaccination is the key to ending the pandemic, citing that vaccination has proven effective. We also have members who are hesitant or strictly opposed to being vaccinated for any number of reasons. It isn’t the union’s place to determine to vaccinate or not to vaccinate. However, the union does have a place in determining the effects on its members, and to that end the union does not support unilateral mandates by employers or the government. Workers’ voices must be heard on all work-related subjects, most especially, on subjects related to their health.