With Labor Day almost here and schools throughout the country coming back to in-person learning, many corporate employers are expected to re-open their offices this September and October. More and more of them, however, are mandating vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition for returning to the office and/or condition for employment. Some real estate services company are among those that are joining this trend and, with the right messaging, seeing uptake even among reluctant employees.
The federal courts had already ruled that employers can legally required vaccination under emergency use authorization, but some companies remained hesitant to issue mandates without a full FDA approval. Now that the agency has given the full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, more of them are comfortable doing so. Among large employers that have already announced vaccination requirements for returning to in-office work are Google, Facebook, Bank of America, BlackRock, Chevron, Deloitte, Cisco Systems, Neflix, CVS, Citigroup and AT&T.
With vaccination rates and COVID-19 case loads/hospitalizations varying widely across different parts of the country, some real estate companies still prefer to take a softer approach to the subject of vaccination. A spokesperson for real estate services JLL, for example, says “We’re continuing to follow the guidance of local governments and health experts regarding vaccinations, occupancy and mask protocols. We continue to encourage our employees to be vaccinated for their safety, as well as the safety of their colleagues.”
But New York City-based office and apartment building owners The Durst Organization and The Related Companies have already announced vaccine mandates for their workers. The Durst Organization warned about 350 of its non-union corporate employees that unless they got a shot by this coming Monday, they would be fired. The company expects 100 percent of its in-office employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 7, though information regarding vaccination status is still being collected, according to a Durst spokesman. The verification process is minimal, with employees required to attest that they received a vaccine and provide the dates on which it was administered, the spokesman says.
In a similar move, Related informed both its union and non-union employees at the beginning of August that they had a month to get vaccinated or face termination once the period ran out.
Among commercial real estate companies taking a hard line on vaccination is CP Group, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based office owner/investor with a portfolio of 23 properties totaling 14 million sq. ft. throughout the Southeast and the Southwest region. Located at the current epicenter of the fourth wave of the pandemic, CP Group is implementing a vaccination mandate for all of its employees, with exceptions granted only for medical or religious reasons, notes Elena Villarreal Daniels, the firm’s director of Environmental, Social and Governance.
CP Group decided to adopt a vaccine mandate in June, even before the Delta variant of the virus caused hospitalizations to spike in the United States. The decision was based on feedback from both its tenants, which include some large healthcare groups, and hundreds of its employees across the country, Villarreal Daniels says. “After allowing all of our workers ample time to educate themselves, consult with their personal physicians and take paid time off in order to receive a vaccine, we believe now is the appropriate time to take this step and ensure the continued safety of our staff and the people who inhabit our buildings,” she notes.
With 500 organizations located in CP Group’s office buildings, about 40,000 of their employees enter the companies’ properties on any given day, according to Villarreal Daniels. As a result, the company viewed its decision as being in the best interest of safety for both its own workers and those of its tenants. “As the virus continues to cause needless loss of life across the country, we believe it is our duty to require vaccines for our employees,” she says. “We adopted this policy prior to the rise in the Delta variant and before many leading companies followed suit, as we believe it is the only way to progress into a post-pandemic reality.”
All CP Group employees, except for the handful with medical or religious exemptions, must present proof of full vaccination to the human resources department for confidential filing by September 7. Employees who took the FDA Vaccine Pledge—promising to get vaccinated once the FDA gave full approval to at least one of the vaccines available in the U.S.—must be fully vaccinated by October 16. Going forward, the company is looking at extending this requirement to on-site vendors, including security and janitorial personnel, a step that may happen in the near future. If an employee or contractor refuses to get vaccinated it will be considered a “voluntary resignation,” Villarreal Daniels notes.
Already, most of the company’s staff (80 percent) has been fully vaccinated and many others (6 percent) have received their first dose. Among those who held off on vaccination, lack of full approval by the FDA was the main holdup, according to Villarreal Daniels. Nine percent of CP Group’s employees pledged to get vaccinated once the FDA fully approved a vaccine. “Having the FDA announce final approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine [is] instrumental in ensuring our employees feel more secure in their decisions,” she notes.
Almost all of the company’s approximately 200 employees have returned to their offices and worksites by now. In accordance with CDC guidelines, everyone is required to wear a face mask in the office regardless of vaccination status, unless they are at their desk.
When the company first announced its vaccination mandate in June, it did face some employee pushback, Villarreal Daniels acknowledges. “The main objection was employees’ reservations about the safety of vaccines. We listened to their concerns and took them into consideration, which is why we extended the original deadline from August 2 to September 7 to give those specific employees more time.” The option of the vaccination pledge was also implemented to allow concerned employees to hold off until at least one of the vaccines received full FDA approval.
In the meantime, in an effort to improve employee knowledge and confidence in the vaccines, CP Group hosted a webinar in partnership with Baptist Health discussing the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. In addition, the webinar was aimed at clearing up any misinformation or myths that had circulated about the vaccines, as well at answering any questions about common side effects and safety for pregnant women or people with certain medical conditions.