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Google and Facebook lead the way with Covid-19 vaccine mandates. Will corporate America follow?

Tech companies continue to be at the forefront of how employers respond to the pandemic.

People walk past a Google building in New York. John Smith/VIEWpress via Getty Images
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

As countless offices prepare to reopen this fall, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the specifics, namely whether or not employees will need to be vaccinated. Tech companies are now some of the first employers to make their position clear: If workers want to return to the office, they will need to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

Google and Facebook — two of the largest tech companies in the world — announced on Wednesday that they will be requiring that all employees returning to their US offices get vaccinated. Google was the first to announce this at the beginning of the day, and Facebook followed suit a few hours later. The news comes as the US government struggles to get its adult population vaccinated (currently fewer than half of eligible Americans have received one vaccine dose), and cases across the nation are rising as the more contagious delta variant spreads. So far, President Biden has not placed a federal mandate on vaccines, which leaves it largely up to employers to exert pressure if they want their employees to avoid getting Covid-19.

Tech firms were some of the first workplaces to require employees to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, these same companies are some of the first major employers in the private sector to mandate that employees be vaccinated before they return. And other companies outside the tech industry are likely to follow. Netflix will also start mandating vaccines for all of its actors and on-set production staff, according to a report from Deadline on Wednesday.

“I hope these steps will give everyone greater peace of mind as offices reopen,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post announcing the requirements. Google is also pushing back the date when it will mandate employees to return to the office from September to October at the soonest, citing concerns about the delta variant. Google also is letting some 20 percent of its employees permanently work from home, and 60 percent work a few days a week in person.

Lori Goler, VP of People at Facebook, released a statement saying that any of the company’s employees working in a US office will need to be vaccinated. Both Google and Facebook said they will have a process for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons. “We continue to work with experts to ensure our return-to-office plans prioritize everyone’s health and safety,” wrote Goler in a partial statement.

Under federal law, it’s been considered legal for employers to require employees to be vaccinated. The courts have recently tossed out cases by people trying to sue hospitals and universities that have required vaccines.

Google and Facebook are also both headquartered in Silicon Valley, a geographic area with one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. But these companies are global firms that employ workers across the political and vaccine-hesitancy spectrum.

At Google, while most employees chiming in on company listservs have so far seemed supportive of the vaccine mandate, some employees have complained, questioning the effectiveness of the vaccines and whether Google has a right to require one, according to a source at the company.

Given how politicized vaccines have become in the US, where many conservative leaders have been slow to support vaccination and stoked vaccine skepticism, it’s likely there will be more resistance.

Nevertheless, these major tech companies are once again setting the tone for how corporate America adapts its working conditions to the realities of the ongoing pandemic.

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