While the wealthy have generally done very well in the pandemic, businesses and employees are eager to get back to normal economic activity. While the vaccines are not perfect, they will (probably) allow the economy to re-open to a large extent—provided enough people get them.
While there are various moral issues involving the COVID-19 vaccines, one is whether employers have the right to require employees to get vaccinated. The legal question will, of course, be addressed by law makers and the courts. While this situation is unusual, it falls under the broader issue of employee rights.
In the United States employers hold vast power over their employees. This power stems from the doctrine of employment at will: an employer can fire an employee for almost any reason or no reason at all. Employees can, of course, quit for almost any reason at all or no reason at all. But employers generally hold the clear advantage: it is much easier for an employer to replace an employee than for an employee to find an equal or better job.
This doctrine allows employers to exert broad control over the lives of their employees within and beyond the workplace. For example, an employer can fire an employee for holding political views they dislike, for social drinking outside of work, or for smoking outside of work. Employers also have a very broad right to surveil their employees at work or when using work equipment. While the government would need a warrant to read your work email or listen in on your calls made at work, your employer can do that at will. In some cases, they can legally put cameras in bathrooms to monitor employees.
While there are those who see this level of employer power to be wrong and even on par with tyranny, it does seem to be the default moral view in practice. That is, employers have the moral right to fire their employees at will—except for a very few exceptions. Under this doctrine, an employer would be within their rights to offer an employee the choice between being vaccinated and being fired—just as they can do the same thing with almost anything else. Obviously, if this doctrine is rejected, then the ethics must be addressed in a different manner.
One reasonable approach is utilitarianism. This is the view that the morality of an action is determined by its positive and negative consequences for those who count morally. Actions whose negative consequences are greater than their positive consequences are wrong. Good actions are those whose positive consequences outweigh the negative. I, like many others, use this approach when addressing large scale ethical matters—such as public policy.
Since the vaccines seem to be reasonably safe and effective, they seem to present little risk of harm (though there are always risks). They also provide the benefit of (probably) reducing the severity of an infection. While there are some concerns about how effective they will be at reducing transmission, it seems likely that they will help do so. Because of this, an employer could make the moral argument that employees must be vaccinated based on the positive consequences of reducing the likelihood and severity of their illness (which would impact the employer). There is also the fact that vaccination of employees would help protect co-workers and customers. An unvaccinated employee would be a health risk to themselves and others and thus it would be right for employers to mandate vaccination in most cases. Employees who would be harmed by the vaccine or who do not interact with other workers or customers could, of course, opt out.
One could make a broad moral argument against employer power and use this to argue that employers should not have the power to force employees to vaccinate (naturally, employees always have the right to quit to avoid doing anything they do not want to do). I do find this appealing because I think employers have far too much power and workers too few rights in terms of how employers can use economic coercion to compel employees. That said, vaccination seems morally on par with safety mandates of other kinds that are aimed at protecting workers and customers from harms and these seem warranted on utilitarian grounds. A business could be morally responsible for not requiring vaccines if employees infect each other or customers.
One way to counter this argument is to argue that requiring vaccination is different from other safety requirements. To illustrate, an employee who is required to wear a hair net while preparing food can take that off at the end of their shift and it has no lasting impact. A vaccination is rather different—the employee cannot have a vaccination that goes in at work and comes out when they are off work. While the vaccines seem safe, they do come with risks that make them rather different from hair nets and gloves (though a person could be allergic to latex gloves). As such, these might be relevant differences that break the analogy.
This can, of course, be countered by the fact that people require vaccination to attend K-12 schools and college—so there is a moral precedent to requiring vaccination. One could argue that school and work are different; the challenge would be showing how the differences break the analogy. Or one could also argue that schools should not require vaccination either—the challenge is proving this rather than just assuming it. But it is worth considering that an employer could be morally responsible if an employee were harmed because they were required to get vaccinated to keep their job.
One can also make an appeal to rights—that people have the right to refuse medical procedures. I do agree that people have this right; but it is distinct from the right to be allowed to work with people unvaccinated. By analogy, I agree that people have the right to use drugs—but this is distinct from the right to use drugs at work, such as while flying a plane.
As a closing point, it seems likely that the conservatives who almost always favor employer rights over employee rights might push against vaccine mandates at work—this is because the right has, in part, embraced the anti-mask ideology. They can, of course, present it as a matter of employer freedom—employers should be free to not mandate vaccines. They would, presumably, have some discomfort forcing businesses to not mandate vaccines, but I suppose they will brand these businesses as liberal.