United Airlines ramp service agent John Dalessandro will receive a COVID-19 vaccine at United’s on-site clinic at O’Hare International Airport on March 9, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
The U.S. government may not require everyone to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, but big employers across America are stepping nowhere.
More than a dozen large U.S. corporations, including Walmart, Google, Tyson Foods, and United Airlines, recently announced vaccination mandates for some or all of their employees.
“With COVID-19 cases of contagious, dangerous variants soaring, leading to rising rates of serious illness and hospitalization among the unvaccinated US population, this is the time to take the next step towards a fully vaccinated one Ensure workforce, ”said Dr. Claudia Coplein, Tyson’s chief medical officer, said in a statement Tuesday.
The US reported a seven-day average of more than 108,600 new cases per day on Sunday, up 36% from a week earlier, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. With 83% of sequenced coronavirus cases nationwide due to the Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that vaccination is considered the safest way by health authorities and management to help employees who have worked remotely bring back to the office.
Although some employers now unilaterally prescribe vaccines, most have limited the scope of their guidelines to specific offices or specific groups of workers.
Google and Facebook have ordered Covid vaccinations for anyone returning to their US offices. Walmart, which employs 1.6 million U.S. workers, has issued a vaccination mandate for all corporate and executive employees, while store workers in high-risk countries are required to wear masks.
Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, outlined the retailer’s plans to “gradually return to our offices with the idea of getting closer to pre-pandemic levels after Labor Day.”
In April 2020, a Gallup survey found that 70% of employees surveyed worked from home. Companies are trying to get their workforce back into the office, but some have already started postponing their return dates as the number of Covid cases rises. Late last month, Google postponed the return deadline to October 18, a delay of more than a month.
“While I’m not a big fan of mandates, we need to use a variety of incentives to encourage as many people as possible to practice effective infection control,” said Dr. Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “If this is the best or only way to motivate some people, then this is a tool in our toolbox.”
United Airlines said on Friday that all of its 67,000 or so employees in the US must provide evidence by October 25th at the latest that they have been vaccinated against Covid, making it the first major airline in the country to issue such a mandate. Employees risk being fired if they fail to comply, despite United said there will be exceptions for religious or medical reasons.
“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby and airline president Brett Hart wrote to employees announce the vaccine requirement. “But we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety at work, and the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated.”
Low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines followed hours later with its own mandate, but said staff will either have to provide proof of vaccination by October 1 or have regular Covid tests.
For better or worse, vaccines and other means of combating the virus such as masks have become controversial in the United States. However, health officials say the measures are necessary to save lives.
“Leaving it up to the individual means saying that there are people who will make a decision that puts employees at risk,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease doctor at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. “So I think it’s a responsible, important, and necessary thing.”
Even companies with the most extensive mandates are legally obliged to allow exceptions.
Facebook’s Vice President of People, Lori Goler, said the company, which employs nearly 59,000 people worldwide, will have a process for people who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and that it is working with experts “to advance our plans for return in the office ”. give priority to the health and safety of all. “
The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents over 800 employees from Google and its parent company, expressed concern about the exemptions from Google’s vaccine mandate, saying the company had provided insufficient details on the exemption procedure. A union spokesman said the mandate was to “convince employees to return to the office” while leaving “a shipload of people” unvaccinated.
Google did not respond to a request for comment. Alphabet had over 135,000 employees worldwide last year.
Other companies have been pushed against their vaccine guidelines by unions. After Tyson announced last week that all 120,000 of its office and factory workers would need to be vaccinated, United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 24,000 Tyson meat packers, expressed reservations about prescribing vaccines that are lacking full FDA approval.
“UFCW will meet with Tyson in the coming weeks to discuss this vaccine mandate and to ensure that the rights of these workers are protected and that this policy is fairly implemented,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. Perrone added that he wanted to ensure that Tyson union workers have paid time off to receive the vaccine and adapt to it.
United and its pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, agreed earlier this year not to implement a vaccination mandate for its nearly 13,000 airmen. United offered pilots who received the vaccine additional pay and flight attendants up to three days off. More than 90% of the pilots and about 80% of the flight attendants are vaccinated, the company said. The union said that some airmen who refuse to be vaccinated should speak to their chief pilot.
“Compulsory vaccination is an employment change that we believe warrants further negotiations to ensure our safety, welfare and bargaining rights are respected,” the pilots union said.
Other airlines, including American, Southwest, and Delta, said they hadn’t made any changes to their policies to encourage, but not mandate, vaccines for their employees. In May, Delta became the first major airline to require the vaccine for new employees. United followed suit. American and Delta have offered incentives such as extra time for employees who are vaccinated. Delta says more than 73% of its employees are vaccinated.
When asked how to respond to a possible company-wide request, Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents approximately 15,000 pilots at American, said, “Our position is a personal choice between pilots and their healthcare professionals as the pilots negotiator Any change in employment conditions must be discussed with the representative union. ”However, the union last week urged pilots to get vaccinated and in a staff statement estimated that around 60% of them are vaccinated.
By mandating vaccinations, Corporate America is taking action in ways federal lawmakers can’t, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. Aside from asking for vaccines for their own employees, Reiss said the federal government “probably doesn’t have the power to say that everyone in the US should be vaccinated or fined”.
But insurance agencies, as a recent comment by Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal and Glenn Kramon in the New York Times suggests. In the model of policies denying coverage for injuries in hazardous activities, the authors suggest that insurers may begin to “punish unvaccinated people” because their denial of vaccination poses a public health hazard. Rosenthal is the editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News and Kramon is a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Corporations also have the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on their side, said Thomas Lenz, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. As long as their mandates comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the commission said in May, companies could require that “all employees who physically enter the workplace are vaccinated against the coronavirus”.
Despite the requirements of the EEOC, some companies still refrain from granting mandates for fear of the alienation of their staff, said Lenz.
“We see that employers, when deciding whether to prescribe vaccinations, are just as concerned about what they perceive as a labor shortage,” said Lenz. “And that’s why employers don’t want to scare people off because they feel like they can accommodate and retain the workforce in a different way.”
– CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to the coverage.