Across the country, countless office buildings have largely sat vacant in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. For some companies, that's by choice -- at this stage of the game, they've recognized that their staff can work efficiently in a remote setting and figure they can reap cost savings by maintaining a long-term remote work policy. But for other companies, there's just too much liability in bringing workers back to the office right now.
That could change, though, as the coronavirus vaccine becomes increasingly available to the public. Right now, in much of the country, only certain groups are eligible -- the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions, and healthcare and essential workers. But as vaccine dose supply increases, there should come a point when anyone who wants a shot can simply sign up and go get one.
The question is: Will employers start forcing workers to get vaccinated? And is that even legal?
One law firm is imposing a vaccine mandate
Many companies have yet to adopt a stance on vaccine mandates -- namely because at this stage of the game, it's a somewhat moot point given limited dosage availability. Some big-name players, like Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), are strongly encouraging employees to get a vaccine when they can, but they're not going so far as to require it. Meanwhile, other employers, like Dollar General (NYSE: DG), Aldi, and Trader Joe's, will reward workers who get the vaccine with extra pay.
But one law firm has decided to enact an official policy on the vaccine. Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, headquartered in Seattle, will no longer allow workers to return to an office or attend company events if they can't show proof of vaccination. The firm, which is the first major law firm to enact a policy on vaccines, is also encouraging workers to get vaccinated as promptly as possible once doses become available.
Those who are unable to get vaccinated as a result of a specific medical condition or religious belief will need to contact the firm's human resources department to see what accommodations can be made. The firm has also said it will provide paid time off for its employees to not only get the vaccine, but recover from its potential side effects.
From a legal standpoint, employers do, in fact, have the authority to require employees to get vaccinated as long as proper exemptions are put into place (for example, vaccines may be contraindicated for certain medical conditions or for people undergoing certain treatments). But requiring vaccines may not sit well with employees who want the option to make that choice themselves.
Of course, from a logistical point of view, mandating vaccines could result in a swifter return to office buildings. And that would certainly be good news for real estate investors.
Many real estate investment trusts with office buildings in their portfolios have taken a beating in the course of the pandemic, and Cushman & Wakefield (NYSE: CWK) predicted late last year that office buildings won't manage to recover until late 2022. By incentivizing workers to get vaccinated, employers could make office buildings more of a mainstay at a time when they risk becoming increasingly obsolete.
Since coronavirus vaccines aren't expected to become widely available to the public until spring or summertime, there's a good chance a lot of employers will stay silent about vaccine requirements for as long as they can. And those who intend to keep their staff remote may not have enough skin in the game to bother with an official policy. But if more companies insist on vaccinations, it could pave the way for a much-needed office building recovery.