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Some Employers Want Proof, Others Say Workers Can Just 'Attest' To Being Vaccinated

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The divisions over vaccines are creating challenges for people trying to ensure workplace safety. Some employers are asking workers to show proof of vaccination. And some, including the federal government, are asking instead for employees to attest to their vaccination status. NPR consumer health correspondent Yuki Noguchi is here to explain. Hi, Yuki.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Explain what attest means exactly and how it's different from showing proof.

NOGUCHI: Well, attesting is basically self-reporting - saying you're vaccinated or you're not. You've probably seen apps or forums that ask you your vaccine status before you travel on a plane or drop a kid off at camp, and that's basically what we're talking about. Yvette Lee is an adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management. She calls it an honor system. Except some employers will also likely ask workers to sign pledges saying they're telling the truth, and that gives these policies teeth, in case a worker is caught lying.

YVETTE LEE: If an employee lies about their vaccination, there are employers that are taking disciplinary actions.

NOGUCHI: And Ari, just this week, CNN fired three employees for lying on their attestation and coming to work unvaccinated.

SHAPIRO: How is attestation different from a mandate?

NOGUCHI: Well, it is because a mandate is a requirement and attestation is just giving your word. So the employer can also ask to verify that you're telling the truth. But in this case, verification can be hard. You know, people lose those vaccination cards or could fake them, and there's no national database out there tracking every person who's received vaccines. So that's why Lindsay Wiley, who directs the Health Law and Policy Program at American University, says relying on workers' word is kind of a quick and dirty alternative.

LINDSAY WILEY: Attestation sidesteps the verification process, unless the employer - which the federal government has so far indicated it's not going to do - collects additional information that it can use to crosscheck.

SHAPIRO: It seems like a lot hinges on the question of honesty here. Like, how do we know if our coworkers or employees are lying? How well do honor systems like this actually work?

NOGUCHI: Well, you can compare it to honor codes at colleges, where students are asked to attest that they won't cheat or plagiarize. Christian Miller studies honesty as a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University. He says these honor codes can make a big difference.

CHRISTIAN MILLER: Twenty-eight percent of college students at schools without an honor code reported helping another person on a test, whereas only 9% did at schools with an honor code.

NOGUCHI: That's 28% versus 9%. And Miller says this is why.

MILLER: It matters to us. We care about being able to think of ourselves as honest people.

NOGUCHI: And he cites another study where students were given the opportunity to lie about how they did on a test. They could self-report their own scores, and they were paid for each correct answer.

MILLER: You would have gotten away with it, so there was a real concrete monetary incentive to cheat.

NOGUCHI: And yet when students were reminded of the honor code, Ari, they did not lie.

SHAPIRO: All right. So research suggests that honor codes can reduce the amount of lying. When it comes to vaccination and protecting people in a workplace, is reducing that risk enough to keep people safe?

NOGUCHI: Well, this is about managing risk, not eliminating them. So yes, there's some risk of unvaccinated workers lying on their attestation and then coming to work anyway, but those people also bear the risk from lying. They could end up losing their jobs. Now, employers have risks, too. If they say prove you're vaccinated or you're fired, then they risk losing employees. And so that's the tradeoff. Kavita Patel is a physician at Mary's Center in Washington, D.C. She sees people lie when they attest to things, whether it's about smoking or if they have COVID symptoms, so she would prefer a vaccine mandate at her workplace. But she also knows that that could alienate some of her staff.

KAVITA PATEL: We can't afford to fire them. And we can't afford to suspend them. That's just, unfortunately, the job market.

NOGUCHI: And that's, frankly, the dilemma for many employers.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Yuki Noguchi, thank you.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.