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Employers step up pressure on unvaccinated workers to get COVID shots

More are imposing rules to make it onerous for employees to refuse, from outright mandates to requiring the unvaccinated to undergo regular testing.

Until now, many employers had taken a passive approach to their unvaccinated workers, relying on outreach and incentives to persuade them to get coronavirus shots. But that has been shifting, with vaccine mandates gaining momentum.
Until now, many employers had taken a passive approach to their unvaccinated workers, relying on outreach and incentives to persuade them to get coronavirus shots. But that has been shifting, with vaccine mandates gaining momentum.
Haven Daley / AP

Employers are losing patience with unvaccinated workers.

For months, most U.S. employers relied on information campaigns, bonuses and other incentives to encourage workers to get COVID-19 shots. Now, a growing number are imposing rules to make it more onerous for employees to refuse, from outright mandates to requiring the unvaccinated to undergo regular testing.

Among employers getting tougher are the federal government, the state governments of California and New York, tech giants Google and Facebook, the Walt Disney Co. and the NFL. Some hospitals, universities, restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues also have begun requiring vaccines.

Genesis Healthcare, which has 70,000 employees at nearly 400 nursing homes and senior communities, making it the biggest player in that industry, also has announced its employees must get the shot to keep their jobs. That’s a sign it’s willing to risk an exodus at already dangerously understaffed facilities to quickly vaccinate the 40% of workers still resisting shots and fend off the surging delta variant.

But the new measures are unlikely to affect many of the millions of unvaccinated Americans.

Many of the companies requiring shots have mostly office workers who already largely have been vaccinated and are reluctant to work alongside those who aren’t.

But major companies that rely on low-income, blue-collar workers — like food manufacturers, warehouses, supermarkets and other store chains — are shying from mandates for fear of driving away employees and worsening the labor shortages they’re facing.

Tyson Foods, for one, said about half of its U.S. workforce — 56,000 employees — got shots after the meat and poultry processor hosted more than 100 vaccination events since February. But the company said it has no plans to impose a mandate to reach the other half.

Walmart and Amazon, the country’s two largest private employers, also have declined to require hourly workers to get vaccinated, continuing to rely on strategies such as bonuses and onsite access to shots. But Walmart has said employees at its headquarters will be required to get vaccinated by Oct. 4.

The biggest precedent so far has come from the nation’s largest employer — the federal government. President Joe Biden has said all federal employees and contractors must get vaccinated or put up with weekly testing and lose privileges such as official travel.

Biden’s decision could embolden businesses by signaling they would be on solid legal ground to impose similar rules, said Brian Kropp, chief of research at consulting firm Gartner’s human resources practice.

But Kropp said some companies face complicated considerations that go beyond legalities, including deep resistance to vaccines in many states.

Also, retailers like Walmart might have a hard time justifying vaccine requirements for their workers while allowing shoppers to remain unvaccinated, Kropp said. Stores have mostly avoided vaccine requirements for customers, fearing they’d alienated them and because of the difficulty in trying to verify their status.

In surveys by Gartner, fewer than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated.

A shift is building, though, in the face of frustration over plateauing vaccination rates and alarm over the spread of the more contagious delta variant.

Some employers are concluding that requiring vaccines is simpler than trying to come up with different rules on masks and social distancing for the small number of unvaccinated workers.

BlackRock, the global investment manager, is allowing only vaccinated workers into its U.S. offices for now and said people will be free to go maskless, as local health guidelines allow, and sit next to each other and congregate without restrictions. The firm said 85% of its U.S. employees are vaccinated or in the process of getting shots.

Matthew Putman, chief executive officer of New York high-tech manufacturing hub Nanotronics, said he agonized over his decision to impose a vaccine mandate on his more than 100 employees. As it turned out, nearly all of them already were vaccinated, though he dreads the prospect of having to fire any holdouts.

“I hate the thought,” Putman said. “But, if it has to happen, it has to happen. I lost a ton of sleep over this but not as much sleep as I’ve lost over the fear of infection.”

Hospitals and nursing home chains increasingly are requiring vaccinations.

Atria Senior Living, which operates more than 200 senior living communities across the country, including Bolingbrook and Glen Ellyn, was among the first to mandate vaccines for its staff in January.

It worked. Nearly 99% of Atria’s 10,000 employees are vaccinated. Only a tiny fraction quit over the requirement, said John Moore, the company’s chief executive officer and chairman.

“Our residents deserve to live in a vaccinated environment,” Moore said. “Our staff deserves to work in a vaccinated environment.”