More than 50 years ago, Leslie Nelson entered a large building and stood in line until she reached a table where there was a paper cup waiting for her.
It contained a sugar cube dotted with a few drops of liquid — the vaccine that would give her protection against the polio virus. Nelson, who was about 9 at the time, downed it without hesitation, enjoying the sugar cube so much that she asked for seconds.
This vaccine and the smallpox shot were embraced by people at the time, recalls Nelson, who’d watched one of her childhood friends suffer through polio. And years later, she would also jump at the chance to inoculate her children against the measles, giving them immunity that she’d lacked as a kid.
“I had all of the horrible childhood illnesses,” she said. “My children haven’t, because they were vaccinated.”
So she’s been dismayed and a bit befuddled recently by the resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine, which she welcomed as she did all of the previous scientific advancements to help people fight off serious illness and death.
As the owner of a business in Orem, vaccine hesitancy wasn’t just an annoyance or a hypothetical problem. Nelson felt a sense of responsibility to act.
So several weeks ago, she typed out an email telling workers at Sendsations that they must show proof of vaccination by Sept. 7 as a condition of their employment.
“Sendsations has the responsibility to provide a safe work environment,” wrote Nelson, whose business runs postcard campaigns for real estate agencies and other companies. “Even though most of the employees at Sendsations have been vaccinated, they can still experience a ‘breakthrough’ case of the Delta variant. Working in the same environment with unvaccinated people is increasingly unsafe.”
Three of her employees left rather than get the shot, she says.
Though the pandemic has stretched on for more than a year, the recent spike in cases among the unvaccinated puts employers such as Nelson in a new quandary. This time, there are no state-issued mandates for wearing masks or social distancing, so businesses must make individual decisions about how to keep their employers and customers safe.
These policies can cost them employees and lead to boycotts and pushback from groups opposed to masking and vaccination requirements — even if they’re privately imposed.
Businesses across the nation have been moving forward with various types of mandates in recent weeks, with Goldman Sachs requiring vaccination for entry to its offices and The Salt Lake Tribune issuing a similar mandate for employees going into the newsroom. Artists and audience members at The Depot and Usana Amphitheater must show proof of vaccination starting Oct. 4, while Delta Air Lines is adding a $200 surcharge to the health insurance premiums of employees who don’t get the shot.
University of Utah Health announced this week that it would be requiring vaccines for its employees, and the University of Utah, Weber State, Utah State and Utah Valley Universities are all mandating that students who want to attend classes in person must get immunized.
Curtis Blair, president and CEO of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in his area would prefer to have freedom over their policies rather than have to follow government mandates. And they’re making a range of different choices about what they’ll require internally.
“I’m delighted to see that businesses are hopefully exercising an appropriate measure of common sense,” he said. “And understanding that, if they were to be bold in their management of masks and vaccinations ... that they probably ought to recognize the risks too. That employees have the choice to leave.”
Community pushback could represent another risk to business owners who adopt a firm stance.
The vaccine requirement at Sendsations put the company in the line of fire from anti-mask groups such as Utah Business Revival, which accused the business of “medical discrimination” and used the story to mobilize followers.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Eric Moutsos, organizer of Utah Business Revival, during a recent Facebook Live about Sendsations. “And I just pray that we can stand up.”
He then invited his followers to participate in “health freedom” rallies in St. George and Salt Lake City.
Moutsos also called on his listeners to donate money in support of two former Sendsations employees who are members of his group and left their jobs rather than get vaccinated.
Nelson said some individuals angry about the Sendsations vaccine policy have been posting negative online reviews about her roughly 35-year-old company, trying to taint its reputation. Others have been calling the business and threatening to boycott it — even though they “are not clients and never will be,” she said.
She said she’d been encouraging vaccination at her workplace for a while before she required it. Early in the year, she told her workers she’d give $500 them bonuses for getting the shot, and most of them took her up on the offer, she said.
But there were a few holdouts among her staff, and as COVID-19 infections flared up again this summer, she decided she had to take her policy a step further. The state has asserted that in most cases, employers are able to make vaccinations a condition of employment, and Nelson concluded that’s what she’d have to do.
However, Blair said in conservative Utah County, he suspects mandates will be less common. Employers there are much more likely to rely on common sense and a feeling of community obligation to protect public health — and he hopes people respect the responsibility that comes along with this freedom.
“My worry ... is that we don’t use that freedom in a way that allows us to maintain that flexibility,” he said. “You get to exercise your choice provided that your consequences are acceptable, livable, manageable.”
Two of the former Sendsations workers told The Salt Lake Tribune that they left the company in search of employers that better aligned with their beliefs about individual choice and workplace safety.
One of them, Andrew Knaupp, said he’d worked as a graphic designer at Sendsations for 16 years but concluded that “when your employer doesn’t value your personal freedoms and wants to force their views on you, it’s time to find another job.”
“It’s one thing for a business to have a dress code, or to require certain behaviors when at work, but a vaccine goes everywhere with you, and remains with you for the rest of your life,” he said in a written statement.
Theresa Escalante said she worked in sales and customer support at Sendsations for nearly two years. She argues that the risk of disease transmission at the company was low, since employees are spread out across a large warehouse building and aren’t in close contact.
“A person’s medical procedures are between that person and their doctor. I was careful to keep my personal life out of work because I was there to do my best at my job,” said Escalante, who has found a new job at a company that doesn’t require vaccination. “I felt violated to have an employer insist on a medical procedure outside of their scope as my boss.”
But Nelson saw her move to require vaccines as in keeping with her longstanding business practices. Sendsations has opened up a weight and cardio area for employees, provides ergonomic workstations and has laid down floor mats for workers who are on their feet in the print shop, she said.
“We’re trying to take care of people,” Nelson said. “We want to treat them right.”
Nelson said she feels that it’s too bad that three of her former employees were dead set against the vaccine, and added that she worries about them and hopes they do well going forward.
“People have made this a political issue, and I just think that’s so beside the point,” she said. “It’s all about safety.”