The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How many Americans will buck Biden’s vaccine and testing mandate — and quit their jobs?

President Biden announced on Sept. 9 a six-pronged plan against covid-19 that includes new vaccine mandates and expanded access to testing. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden on Thursday announced the federal government’s boldest move to date in its coronavirus vaccination campaign, making companies with at least 100 employees require either vaccinations or weekly testing.

The White House estimates this requirement will apply to about 80 million workers, or about two-thirds of the U.S. workforce. In other words, in a country in which one-quarter of adults have not gotten the vaccine, it could force plenty of people into some difficult choices.

The question from there is what choice they will make and what impact it will have, not just on the vaccination rate but on people’s livelihoods and the economy.

Some, especially on the right, have argued not just that such a mandate is bad policy, but that it’s also likely to inflame the situation by making the unvaccinated dig in. The Hotline’s Josh Kraushaar summarized that argument Thursday:

There is indeed evidence that many Americans — the vast majority of the unvaccinated, in fact — claim to be dug-in against employer vaccine mandates. But that’s in some ways a false choice here, and many are probably overestimating just how much American workers will fight this.

Many making this argument have cited a Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend. It showed that just 18 percent unvaccinated people whose employers don’t currently have mandates said they would likely get vaccinated if their employer required it. About 7 in 10 (72 percent) said that, if they couldn’t get a medical or religious exemption, they would probably quit rather than submit to the requirement.

That would be a big number. When you drill down on the data, fully 16 percent of all Americans who work for employers say they are unvaccinated and would quit if their employer required them get vaccinated.

But there’s some nuance in both these numbers and the actual policy.

One is that there are exemptions in the new policy. The White House said Thursday that people could seek them for religious reasons or if they have a disability. The Post-ABC poll shows that 35 percent of the unvaccinated say they would seek such an exemption, compared to 42 percent who say they would outright quit.

At the same time, it’s not clear how many people in that 35 percent would necessarily qualify for exemptions. It would seem logical that many of their objections are personal rather than religious or health-related, and they might not meet the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s standard. So, many of them could still be pushed into a difficult choice. And the poll shows that very few of them would opt for vaccination if denied an exemption.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that this is a hypothetical — one that invites people to claim an attractive, principled stand that, in many cases, might not ultimately hold up. Most of the remaining unvaccinated have staked out this position and firmly declined to get vaccinated for the better part of a year. If they’re suddenly asked whether they would submit to doing something they didn’t previously want to do, of course many of them are going to say they would fight it. We all like to think we would stand up for our principles in that situation. The reality could be quite different.

And that principled stand could be even more costly than it was when the poll was conducted. Quitting your job over such a mandate is no easy call in the first place. It becomes even more difficult if there is suddenly a major dearth of alternatives to employment. The Post-ABC poll was conducted at a time when just 2 in 10 Americans said they worked for companies with vaccine requirements. What happens when that number jumps to two-thirds or more of the American workforce, with every major company in the country having this requirement?

The other major reason the number who will truly fight this is probably oversold — and the pushback on it a little overzealous — is that the policy has an important third option: Weekly testing. Many, including the media and the Republicans crying foul, have cast this as a vaccine mandate when it’s not strictly that. It’s a vaccine or testing mandate. If people truly object to vaccination but do not want to lose their jobs, they can submit to this testing.

That matters both legally speaking when it comes to whether the policy passes muster, and practically speaking when it comes to its ultimate impact. Getting tested weekly is a hassle and might not be attractive to people — potentially spurring less-reluctant unvaccinated people to just get the shot — but it could ultimately be more attractive than what other unvaccinated people will view as the more extreme options.

The ideal scenario for the vaccination campaign is that these people get vaccinated rather than submit to weekly testing or quit. But it also means that perhaps the choice isn’t as stark and the opposition isn’t as likely to be as dug-in as some have suggested.

And as the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman notes, to the extent people do truly dig in, it will probably be not because of the policy, but because they were already dug in in the first place.

Now they will just have an excuse to blame it on Biden.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.