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Can Employers Require Workers To Be Vaccinated? It Depends

Measles vaccine isn't a part of most workplaces.
Eric Risberg
Measles vaccine isn't a part of most workplaces.

When measles first hit Disneyland back in December, several employees were infected. The company asked workers who may have had contact with the ill not to come back to work until they showed proof of immunity. And Disney footed the bill for those who needed to update their vaccines.

What about where you work? Do employers have any responsibility to check the vaccination status of their staff, even when there's no imminent outbreak?

"It depends on what type of employer and what type of job," says Dr. Arthur Reingold, a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

When it comes to measles risk, there are three types of companies, he says.

  • Hospitals are one place where it makes complete sense to require employees to be vaccinated. The risk to patients is so high that every nursing school and med school requires students to be vaccinated before they start training. Several states have laws mandating hospitals to either offer vaccines to new staff or ensure that new employees are vaccinated before starting work. The laws typically include exemptions for people with disabilities or bona fide religious objections.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, the office environment doesn't present risks that would justify mandatory vaccination. "If you work at Google, what business is it of your employer to tell you what vaccines you should have had?" Reingold says. "You're not at greater risk because you work at Google of getting measles than you are in the general population."
  • In the middle there are places like Disneyland, where there are many children and international visitors, but they are healthy. Staff at schools and day care centers might also fall in this middle category.
  • Even at schools or day care centers, Reingold says, it doesn't make sense to require proof of vaccination. "Just because of how unwieldy and expensive it would be," he says. "I think a lot of people would consider that a distraction."

    About 96 percent of adults in the United States are already immune to measles, Reingold says. Finding the remaining 4 percent scattered throughout the workforce would mean requiring employees to submit their immunization record (can you find yours?), or undergo testing.

    "You can imagine the amount of disruption for teachers running off to get a blood test," Reingold says. "That would be a fair bit of work, collectively, for society."

    For the public health benefit that might result, it's just not worth the effort or cost, he says. Resources are better spent making sure kids are vaccinated. So the boss should just stay out of it.

    This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.

    Copyright 2015 KQED

    April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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