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Employers Struggle With The Decision To Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines

Gene J. Puskar

On today’s program: Some employers and education institutions are requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but others are waiting for the vaccines to receive full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; unemployed Pennsylvanians will soon have to show proof they’re looking for work, a requirement halted due to the pandemic; and the airport is expecting a busy weekend ahead and summer season as more Americans are vaccinated and traveling.

Can employers require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19?
(0:00 — 5:53)

As some offices begin to reopen and people return to work in person, some businesses have considered requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but many have decided against a vaccine mandate.

Dan Diamond, national health reporter for the Washington Post, says businesses are inclined to require the vaccine so they can safely reopen, reduce the likelihood of an outbreak at their workplace, and avoid potential legal liability.

“Can private employers mandate shots? Lawyers that I spoke to thought they could, thought there was enough precedent in the various public health protections over the years,” says Diamond.

He says Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance regarding COVID-19 also indicated employers could require it, with accommodations for religious or reasonable health objections, but some businesses are still concerned about risk of backlash or public perception.

“The [Food and Drug Administration] is going to go through a process of finalizing approval for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, and once that vaccine is finalized, once it’s not depending on emergency authorization, that should unlock more ability to treat it as a medically approved product and then potentially be required,” says Diamond.

For now, select higher education institutions and travel businesses are some of the only organizations to enforce mandatory vaccination among staff, faculty and students.

Those receiving unemployment will soon have to show proof of their job search
(5:58 — 13:48)

Starting in July, people receiving state unemployment money will have to show they are searching for a job. The state Department of Labor and Industry suspended that requirement early in the pandemic, but Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier is reinstating the prerequisite.

“On July 11 this year, if all goes well, you have to apply for two jobs and then participate in some work search activity for a third one every week,” explains WESA Capitol Bureau chief Sam Dunklau. That paperwork will have to be submitted weekly beginning July 18.

Dunklau says this change could affect up to 300,000 people who are collecting or have applied for unemployment compensation.

Just before this requirement is being reinstated, the state Department of Labor and Industry is planning to launch a long-awaited system to file for unemployment benefits online, an update to a 40-year-old system. Dunklau says Labor and Industry officials have warned the update is likely to come with its own bugs to be worked through, and is partially why the work search requirement will not be required until mid-July.

“Right now we’re, of course, in a very different place in the pandemic: cases are going down, they’re trending down throughout the state, vaccination rates are up,” says Dunklau. “Plus, the U.S. Labor Secretary has kind of encouraged states to, as soon as it’s feasible, reinstate the rules and requirements around unemployment compensation in order to get the economy sort of back and rolling.”

More people are traveling through Pittsburgh’s airport, and so is more cargo
(13:53 — 18:00)

According to AAA, nearly 2.5 million Americans are expected to fly over the long Memorial Day weekend. That's six times more air passengers than a year ago.

“We’ve seen passengers increasing pretty steadily for a couple of months now,” says Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. “We’re expecting a very good showing of passengers this summer.”

Cassotis says daily passengers in April 2021 have increased 1,200% from April 2020, but the 2021 numbers are still 45% below those of April 2019.

While passengers are slowly flying more, the airport’s cargo service has brought in more revenue this year.

“We’ve seen quite a jump in our cargo traffic,” says Cassotis, citing new agreements with Amazon and other airlines. “This is something that we have every expectation will grow as demand grows, certainly for on-demand products.”

So far, the Airport Authority has received an $18.9 million federal grant and $2.8 million in Pennsylvania Department of Transportation grants that Cassotis says will help bolster the airport’s cargo facilities.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at
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