The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the private sector is forcing big companies to take divergent paths, with some requiring shots anyway and others deciding it is not worth the bother.
In doing so, executives are dealing with a patchwork of local rules and double-edged pushback from employees who support or oppose mandates.
Starbucks said it would no longer take steps to ensure workers are vaccinated or face weekly testing after the justices issued a stay against the Biden rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency would have imposed the same vaccinate-or-test rule on all companies with 100 or more workers as of Feb. 9.
Carhartt, an apparel company, went in the opposite direction. It reminded employees that they were subject to an in-house vaccine mandate regardless of the justices’ ruling.
“We put workplace safety at the very top of our priority list, and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling doesn’t impact that core value,” Carhartt CEO Mark Valade wrote to workers. “An unvaccinated workforce is both a people and business risk that our company is unwilling to take.”
Other companies are on the fence.
Macy’s department stores began to request the vaccination status of its employees this month but told publications it was “evaluating this late-breaking development” from the court.
A survey by Willis Towers Watson in November found that a third of companies would forge ahead with mandates only if the OSHA rule took effect.
Now that the justices have blocked it, companies are forced to navigate the landscape without a road map from Washington.
“In the absence of that, the CEOs are going to proceed on their own and see what their competitors are doing, what works in their workplace,” said Dan Meyer, managing partner of the Tully Rinckey law firm’s Washington office. “We are in a balkanized decision-making arena right now.”
Carhartt’s memo doubling down on the mandate prompted an outcry and calls for a boycott from those who oppose vaccine mandates, even as the union Starbucks Workers United slammed the coffee chain for failing to discuss the issue or negotiate with unionized partners at two locations in the Buffalo, New York, area.
“This comes after partners at [one location] raised COVID safety concerns that the company rebuffed. Once again, this shows why Starbucks partners need a union to have a voice in these critical matters,” the union said in a statement to The Washington Times.
Starbucks’ corporate office made preparations to comply with the OSHA regulation in January and then complied with the ruling, which suspended the vaccinate-or-test regimen. It said the vast majority of company employees are fully vaccinated and it strongly encourages workers to get the shots.
“Given the court’s ruling, we expect more jurisdictions may move quickly to pass local mandates. Starbucks will continue to follow all laws, mandates and public health regulations,” wrote John Culver, the group president for North America and chief operating officer at Starbucks.
Indeed, local regulations and private employers’ decisions are dictating the way forward now as Mr. Biden struggles to preserve his federal mandate.
A federal judge issued an order Friday halting Mr. Biden’s dictate that all federal employees get the coronavirus vaccine or risk losing their jobs. He said the president overstepped his powers.
Judge Jeffrey Vincent Brown, a Trump appointee to the bench in Texas, issued a nationwide injunction, meaning that of the four major vaccine mandates the Biden administration has promulgated, three are now blocked.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it would be up to the Justice Department to decide the next steps but suggested that the idea of the mandate has worked.
“First, let me update you that 98% of federal workers are vaccinated. That is a remarkable number,” she said.
Private companies that believe in strong mandates are driving ahead regardless of the high-profile rulings.
“Biden’s failure to get OSHA mandates did not hugely overturn existing mandates in companies and health care institutions. Some big industries that were waiting did not proceed, but many — I don’t know percentage — did not drop their existing requirements,” said Art Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
Citigroup, a major bank, reported last week that 99% of its employees complied with its vaccine mandate before a Jan. 14 deadline.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon recently told CNBC that the bank will take a hard line at its New York City headquarters.
“To go to the office, you have to be vaxxed, and if you aren’t going to get vaxxed, you won’t be able to work in that office,” he said last week. “And we’re not going to pay you not to work in the office.”
United Airlines, which loudly and proudly imposed a mandate months ago, said its rules are preventing severe disease and death.
Even though 3,000 United Airlines workers were infected with the virus amid the omicron wave this month, “zero of our vaccinated employees are currently hospitalized,” CEO Scott Kirby said to employees in a Jan. 11 letter. “Prior to our vaccine requirement, tragically, more than one United employee on average per week was dying from COVID.”
Mr. Meyer said companies with vaccine mandates will tend to have more stable workforces but industries that suffer from high turnover rates might avoid mandates so they don’t lose workers who object to new rules.
“Companies are going to do what’s prudent for the company’s business line,” he said. “The more we have to go through this, the more companies will get used to it.”
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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