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Illustration by Security Management

Organizations Wrestle with How to Enforce Health Policies

The politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States continues apace.

Last week U.S. President Joe Biden announced he has instructed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop a rule requiring all employers with 100 or more employees to require either vaccinations or weekly negative tests as part of new measures to combat a disease that has caused more than 40 million infections in the country and killed more than 650,000 Americans.

Partisan echo chambers are amplifying different narratives, either that the edict is an unconstitutional, desperate power-grab by an embattled president or that the order is legal and necessary to try to save those who refuse to save themselves.

Whatever happens with the mandate, it is one more sign of the polarization and politicization surrounding an issue that continues to be a thorny issue for the people charged with ensuring the safety and security of organizations.

Many companies had already announced vaccination requirements for their employees, and these policies require enforcement. Here’s one exchange in a Wall Street Journal article on company vaccination policies:

“There’s 101 questions,” said Jason Girzadas, a managing principal who sits on Deloitte’s U.S. executive committee. [Deloitte is requiring vaccination in certain situations.]

The company is navigating a patchwork of vaccine requirements among its clients, too. If a client requires consultants to be vaccinated to work in an office, for example, yet a Deloitte employee is unwilling or unable to get a shot, Deloitte is moving those employees to new projects or assignments, Mr. Girzadas said.

“The chessboard here gets pretty complicated,” he said.

Many CEOs say they are fielding a stream of hard-to-answer questions from employees who are hesitant to get shots or asking for exemptions. UKG Inc., a human resources and workforce management software company, requires vaccinations for U.S. employees looking to voluntarily return to its offices or to participate in company events. After its policies were first announced, some unvaccinated employees asked whether they could visit the office of a client that doesn’t require vaccinations, arguing, “Why can’t I go to that customer meeting if they don’t care?” said Aron Ain, UKG’s chief executive officer.

Brandon del Pozo, a postdoctoral researcher in the Brown University medical school, and Jennifer Wood, a professor in the department of criminal justice at Temple University, wrote an editorial for The Washington Post that addresses the complexities involved with policing health policies. They noted several instances of law enforcement officers resisting vaccine mandates within their own ranks and how that makes them unlikely to be the source for enforcing such mandates in society as a whole.

“But if the nation’s public law enforcement apparatus—already overburdened with all that Americans ask it to do—is challenging the response to a public health crisis, how can it also enforce it?" they asked. "The answer is that it probably can’t, or won’t, and in some instances maybe even shouldn’t.

“That leaves private actors, who can play a critical role if coercion is necessary for compliance, but who are now in crucial ways entering uncharted territory.”

In some cases, particularly when the issue is a business that requires its customers to be vaccinated or wear masks or follow any other health protocol, enforcement will fall on the workers who interact with the customers. Beginning this week, for example, you need to show your vaccination card to get seated at a restaurant in New York City, so it’s the hostess or cashier acting as frontline enforcer.

As del Pozo and Wood wrote, this “enforcement burden is not trivial,” noting at least four workers have been killed in disputes related to masks, and there have been countless physical altercations as well.

“Policing human behavior is never easy, but it’s rare we’ve asked this many people to do it,” they wrote.

And, of course, there’s always the honor system method.