Sunday Message From Ben: Why We as Employers Need to Drive Vaccinations


Turning the calendar to October makes the pumpkins and pumpkin lattes I’m seeing around town seem normal, but little else does these days. If you would have asked me in March whether we would be talking about Covid restrictions in October, causing us to turn away tourists and institute our version of a passport to eat in a restaurant (showing two forms of id, even if you have the app!), I would have been shocked. I’m more shocked that vaccines have become such an incredibly distorted challenge. 

In this post, I’m going to share my views on why getting vaccinated is an employer issue that we must take action on. 

Why is this an employer issue? 

This is really the key question that we’ve been forced to grapple with, and I have two main reasons. The first is directly related to every employer in Hawaii. Covid transmission and healthcare costs are having a massive business impact. Healthcare utilization in 2021 is being primarily driven by Covid transmission costs, with by far the largest spend being hospitalization costs associated with Covid. In the ProService healthcare plans, over $3M in spend in the last six months has come from Covid-related hospitalization costs and 99% of these costs are from unvaccinated members. Covid costs for mild cases amongst vaccinated members are tiny. My estimation is that the costs of an unvaccinated population continuing to get infected and go to the hospital will be 3% of healthcare costs, minimum for 2022. This is a direct expense every employer in Hawaii is bearing. 

Add to this the cost of lost time, sick employees, quarantines, remote work, etc. and the direct costs of an unvaccinated workforce or family members continue to rise. Doing nothing means higher costs for business in a state that is already too expensive.

Beyond the direct business costs, the indirect costs are higher still. Our governor continues to go off message and shoo away tourists, and we put in place social distancing, masking and all sorts of other restrictions which directly limit business activity during our fragile economic recovery. While I disagree with these practices, these are implemented for the stated reason to protect our hospitals from being overwhelmed, which is happening because of unvaccinated people getting sick with Covid. Worse still, our hospitals are limiting care to those sick with cancer, heart failure, and other life-threatening conditions to treat Covid. For those people, this societal issue is truly life or death. 

The bottom line is that there are many more reasons we could cite, but for these economic and moral reasons, it is time for employers to step in and the reasons are clear. 

Employers have a vested interest, and a responsibility, to help with this vexing issue. 

Employers have been slow to take on this issue, wondering if they can, if it’s their business, or wondering how to address what they can and can’t do. For these reasons, ProService is here to help. We have a full range of advice for ways employers can engage, including specific guidance on how to implement your vaccine policy. We know your workplace, operations, and culture have unique issues, which is why we are providing a couple of options in our guidance.

In my opinion, employers have to step into their responsibility here. As an employer, you have power and represent a place where fact-based, reasonable conversations can happen that cut through the fog of misinformation. Your employees listen to you as a trusted source. Use this credibility you have built up to empathize with and support your employees to get vaccinated, making the best choice for their personal health, their ohana, community, colleagues, and your business. 

Here is my response to some of these issues I’ve heard raised. 

Vaccines are proven safe and very effective. 6.33 Billion doses have been administered around the World with very few serious side effects. As of September 30th, Americans have taken more than 226M doses of the Pfizer vaccine,  151M doses of the Moderna vaccine, and 15M doses of the J&J vaccine. Even vaccinated, you can get Covid, but it’s not as likely as if you are unvaccinated. More importantly, getting Covid is not the problem. Going to the hospital from Covid, or dying, is the problem. We want to minimize the severe infections and one is extremely unlikely to go to the hospital from Covid if you get the vaccine. You are much more likely to end up very sick and possibly die if you don’t. 

The bigger social issue is that choosing to be unvaccinated is not a personal choice issue. It’s a societal issue called the free rider issue. A free rider is someone who benefits from others’ actions, but chooses not to participate themselves. Vaccination is about the entire community getting immunity. We’ve done this as a society many times – that’s why we don’t have smallpox still circulating, which killed most native Americans and hundreds of thousands of colonists, or polio, which crippled millions for generations, or measles, or, or, or…. The people who say “I’ll play the odds” are free riding. When they are wrong and go to the hospital, we all pay for their decision. When they spread Covid to others, they propagate the spread and the continued mutations. Being unlikely to get really sick ignores that this is not a single player game. It is a community game, where all of us must participate at the same time to protect everyone. Our kupuna and immunocompromised deserve our kokua. 

I find there are very few reasons for employers not to lean in here. There are direct and indirect costs, and there is a huge need. The stacks of data supporting vaccination grow by the day, and it's only a matter of time until the next variant surge arrives. Other policy responses are off message from the main one of vaccination. Ignorance is not an excuse, and employers need to play a role in addressing the misinformation and disinformation that is so prevalent. We must play a role because society no longer has the strong neighborhood, church, and other community bonds that once helped everyone come together. Hawaii, and the United States, both have strong and long traditions of the community coming together to achieve a shared collective goal. We must speak up and use the tools at our disposal to help. 

So please lean in. Have a look at our resources, which will help you develop the approach that works for your business and circumstances. Stay tuned for more as we continue to invest time and energy, working with leading experts, into the most critical business issues impacting Hawaii. This is a challenging time and it takes us, working together, to deliver the change we need.

With Aloha,

Ben Godsey