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  • Lindsey Millerd

Workplace vaccine mandates during COVID

When AJ Steele, a University of Hawaii Manoa student and resident assistant, learned he would have to get vaccinated to stay employed, he didn't hesitate.

“I have no reaction outside of accepting,” Steele said. He continued saying, "A conspiracy theory or personal feelings of fake oppression take away from the purpose of the vaccine, which is to protect the people next to you and yourself.”

In an effort to bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end, vaccine mandates are becoming increasingly common. Those still skeptical of the vaccine’s safety or government intentions behind the mandates now face the ethical and moral dilemma of whether to take the COVID-19 vaccine or forgo it.

Proof of vaccination or a negative test result are required to enter several businesses and attend large events in Hawaii and many other states. While there has been some backlash toward these, mandates in the workplace are sparking the most debate, as livelihoods are on the line.

The City & County of Honolulu launched the Safe Access O‘ahu program on Sept. 13. The program “requires all employees, contractors, and volunteers of businesses, such as restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, museums... to show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 test result each week in order to operate,” according to the One O‘ahu website.

University of Hawaii employees, students and visitors are required to comply with the UH COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Policy. It states anyone entering a UH campus, facility or office must be “fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or obtain and maintain a current negative COVID-19 test."

For Steele, this policy was completely justified. As a resident assistant, his job requires him to regularly be in contact with other students.

He said that with his minimal background in science and medicine, “to question scientists who dedicate their life work to finding and improving vaccines would be ridiculous.”

There is no doubt that the mandates have increased vaccine uptake. A study conducted by the UH Economic Research Organization surveyed nearly 2,000 Hawaii businesses and showed that prior to the mandates there was 84.4% vaccination rate among workers. After the mandates, it increased to a vaccination rate of about 92%.

However, some believe employees should have the right to make their own decision, without their employer twisting their arm. Augie Tulba, a member of the Honolulu City Council and vice chair of the public safety committee, said to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he believes people “will operate in a safe manner, regardless of their vaccination status."

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi sent a memorandum to all City and County of Honolulu department and agency heads on Aug. 16 stating, “due to the recent surge of Delta variant COVID-19 cases, and to continue to best protect City employees and fulfill the City’s obligations to the public, all City employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Exemptions will be granted only on medical or religious grounds.”

Keith Daniel, an 18-year veteran of the Honolulu Fire Department, is part of the group of first responders who filed a federal lawsuit against the state and county mandate. In a declaration supporting the lawsuit he said, "The neighbor islands were given a testing mandate rather than a vaccine mandate. Mayor Blangiardi, however, was now forcing us to provide either a religious or medical exemption and have it approved or potentially denied.”

In his memorandum, Blangiardi said Honolulu county specifically, is suffering from “a significant level of COVID-19, in particular the Delta variant.”

While Honolulu County continues to have the highest COVID-19 cases in the state, the county also has the largest population of the four other counties. Honolulu has continuously shown infections close to or often below the other counties when measured in daily cases per 100,000 people, according to the Department of Health’s Hawaii COVID-19 County Cases.

The hearing for the lawsuit against the mandate was dismissed on Oct. 22, due to the fact that now, about two months after the lawsuit was filed, all 12 Plaintiffs were granted a religious exemption. Therefore, no one in the case was “required or ‘forced’ to take a COVID-19 vaccination.” The court also cited the Plaintiffs’ shift in position toward COVID testing which disrupted many of their claims.

Still, a major concern for those opposing the vaccine mandate is the validation and enforcement of religious exemptions. Daniel questioned, “who will be judging the value of my faith? Someone in the Department of Human Resources?”

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, “The definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar. Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers should strive to provide an accommodation unless it would create an “undue hardship” on the business. An “undue hardship” is considered anything that has “more than minimal cost or burden on the employer.”

This is not a very clear definition to follow, proving there is a lot of power within the employer’s hands to make the final decisions.

In an article posted on the Society for Human Resource Management website, SHRM president Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. said, “If the employer considers an individual’s disability or religious reasons for being unvaccinated and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, an employer could exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace."

This may mean transitioning to telework, but for jobs that require in-person contact, this could easily lead to termination. Across the country, those in the healthcare industry are facing some of the first effects.

According to a statement published on the official website of New York, “all healthcare workers in New York State, including staff at hospitals and long-term care facilities (LTCF)... will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” and that there are ”limited exceptions for those with religious or medical reasons.” Again, this is largely up to the employer’s standards and ability to accommodate alternative precautions.

According to an ABC News story published on Sept. 27, New York’s largest healthcare provider, Northwell Health has already taken action against unvaccinated employees. At the time, Northwell had already had about two dozen staff “exited from the system” and had started the process to remove the rest of their unvaccinated staff.

Many believe this push for vaccines by employers is completely unethical and continue to advocate for the freedom to choose. Videos on the Aloha Freedom Coalition’s Instagram page show crowds of protesters at their 5th “Freedom Mega March'' which was held on Sept. 25. Protesters waved American flags and posters expressing their opposition to Hawaii's COVID-19 response.

One poster read “my body, my choice,” a popular pro-choice (abortion) slogan now frequently used in the fight against vaccine mandates. Another read, “you were elected to work for us, not big pharma,” expressing the belief that problematic relations between politicians and pharmaceutical companies are the reason behind the vaccine mandates.

While these mandates are intended to keep employees safe and healthy, it verges on extreme for some people. Workplace mandates are just one piece of the debate on what strikes the balance between public safety and individual rights.

Note: Visit the UH COVID-19 page for the latest guidelines and updates.

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