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Two Walmart workers in masks talk to each other near a checkout line.
Walmart workers in Miami, Florida, during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Some companies are mandating vaccines — but not for front-line workers

Walmart, Uber, and McDonald’s are requiring office workers to get vaccinated. Stores, cars, and warehouses are a different story.

Workers at places like Walmart and McDonald’s have been on the front lines of the pandemic for months. But when it comes to the Covid-19 vaccine, their employers are treading lightly with just how far to push them.

Major brands and corporations were initially hesitant to wade into the debate over whether to mandate vaccines for their workers. Many advocated to get their employees access to the vaccine as early as possible, but the hope was — as with many government and public health officials — that a significant majority of people would opt to get the shots voluntarily. That’s not what has played out in reality.

Now, with cases on the rise in many parts of the country and the dangerous delta variant proving to be highly contagious, “please, get a shot” messaging has become “really, get a shot” for many workers. Thus far, however, companies have been much keener to require vaccinations of white-collar workers than of front-line workers, many of whom were declared “essential” during the pandemic. This yet again drives home the divisions and inequities exposed among America’s workforce during the pandemic.

Walmart, for example, will require all of its corporate and regional staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19 by October 4 unless they have an “approved exception,” namely, a religious or medical reason not to be vaccinated. But it isn’t asking the same of store associates and warehouse workers, to whom it is instead offering a $150 incentive for getting vaccinated (it previously offered $75) and paid time off. McDonald’s has taken a similar approach and is requiring its US corporate workers to be vaccinated by September 27 while offering restaurant employees at the locations it owns four hours of paid leave to get a vaccine (most McDonald’s locations are owned by franchises and not directly by the company). AT&T is mandating vaccines for managers and starting negotiations with unions about a similar rule for other workers. Uber and Lyft are requiring their corporate employees to get vaccinated to return to the office, but they’re not mandating shots for drivers.

From a business perspective, it’s possible these decisions make sense: It’s easier, logistically, to compel a smaller pool of corporate employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine, which they may not be as hesitant about in the first place. With a broader pool of floor workers, a vaccine mandate may be more difficult to orchestrate or enforce. Many businesses are already struggling to find workers, and they don’t want to turn anyone off.

But from a public health perspective, asking office workers to get vaccinated while having a different set of rules for employees in much higher contact with the general public (as well as other workers) does not really add up.

“The reality is that the goal of a business, the goal of a company, is not the same as public health,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco. “A fundamental tenet in protecting public health is ensuring that those who are most vulnerable, namely front-line workers, are going to be protected.”

To be sure, some companies are obligating all their employees to get vaccinated. Disney says all of its salaried and non-union hourly workers at its US sites have to get the shot, and it’s negotiating with its unionized workers over the issue right now. Tyson Foods, which has seen severe Covid-19 outbreaks among its employees, is requiring all of its office workers to be vaccinated by October 1 and the rest of its workforce by November 1. Many state and federal workers are required to get vaccinated or get tested regularly. More employers could get tougher on their vaccine rules, especially as the pandemic rages on, frustration with the unvaccinated grows, and more companies jump on board.

“There’s probably a degree of bravery or going out on a limb for employers,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “Maybe it’ll hit some tipping point. But right now your largest ones, Amazon and Walmart, are not mandating it for their line staff. If they were to make that call, my guess is that lots of other companies would follow suit.”

“The fact of the matter is that it’s a very touchy situation,” said Ed Egee, vice president of workforce development at the National Retail Federation. “There’s only so many levers we can pull.”

Mandating vaccines for workers is legal. It’s also hard.

It is, by and large, legal for companies to require their workers to be vaccinated, as long as they provide accommodations for people who for certain reasons, such as their religion or a disability, cannot. (Vox’s Ian Millhiser has a full explainer on the issue here.) But just because employers can mandate vaccines doesn’t mean they are necessarily eager to, for a variety of reasons.

There are a lot of “complexities” to mandating the vaccine for workers in the field, said Kory Lundberg, a spokesperson for Walmart, in an email. “Because our office associates are a much smaller population that’s concentrated in a few geographic areas, and because most are planning to return to the office in the coming weeks, we feel it’s much more practical to move to a requirement for that group,” he said.

Walmart didn’t specify the complexities it’s worried about, but it’s not hard to make some inferences as to what those may be. The company employs 1.6 million people in the US, the vast majority of whom work at its stores and warehouses, and trying to wade through how many of those people were vaccinated, decipher exceptions, and perhaps put in place testing regimes for people who aren’t vaccinated but want to keep working would be expensive and logistically hard. A vaccine mandate for all of its workers could also spark backlash in places and among people who are more vaccine-hesitant, including employees and customers. And with many businesses complaining of a shortage specifically of low-wage workers, many companies, including Walmart, may not be eager to risk alienating any potential employees. Walmart is already offering bonuses to warehouse workers to try to keep them on through the holidays.

“If you’re trying to mandate vaccines, some goodly number of workers are going to insist that they want to do something else,” Egee said.

Lindsay Ryan, an employment lawyer based in California, noted that in many places, the laws around vaccines are evolving in a way that may render it tricky for national corporations to manage requirements. Montana, for example, has made vaccination status a “protected class,” meaning that with few exceptions, employers can’t discriminate against workers based on whether they’ve gotten the Covid-19 shot. “It’s a different thing to mandate it for corporate offices and headquarters where it’s easy to know the applicable laws for that jurisdiction,” she said. “They don’t want to implement a mandatory vaccine policy and [then] take it back.”

Companies with a franchise model, like McDonald’s, might not have as direct of a say in what is asked of workers who are employed directly by the franchisee and not the corporation. “In many instances, the frontline workers who people might normally associate as employees of the corporation are actually employees who are under the control of franchise owners, so the corporate policy will only apply to corporate employees,” Ryan said.

McDonald’s didn’t return a request for comment for this story on its decision process.

While it’s not the case with McDonald’s and Walmart, many companies must also deal with unions when deciphering how to approach vaccines. “If they’re there already with bargaining authority, they’ve got power. If unions have bargaining power, they can require bargaining before the employer mandates vaccines,” said Sam Estreicher, a law professor at New York University’s School of Law and director of its Center for Labor and Employment Law.

That’s what’s happening at Disney. Eric Clinton, the president of Unite Here Local 362, which represents thousands of Disney World workers in Florida, said there are a lot of “complicated details” in working out how vaccine requirements will work with unionized employees. The union and the company have to come to an agreement on what exceptions should be and how they’ll be reviewed as well as accommodations for unvaccinated people. Workers could be given a different shift, be required to wear more personal protective equipment, or wind up in a different job altogether, depending on what kind of agreement is reached.

Throughout negotiations, the union has been adamant that it backs the Covid-19 vaccine. “Our position is very clear: The vaccine is the best way to protect yourself as a front-line worker. Period,” Clinton said. “If this was a firefighters union and they didn’t get a proper suit to go into a burning building, we’d be demanding that.”

Some of the workers who need vaccines don’t want them

Front-line workers are among those most vulnerable to contracting and spreading Covid-19. They’re in contact with the public and often find themselves in close quarters and dealing with customers whose vaccination statuses are unknown and are often unmasked. They’re the people who, from a public health standpoint, are arguably among those most important to protect from the disease. They are also often from groups that are less likely to be vaccinated.

The vaccination rate across the US tends to be lower among low-income people and Black and Hispanic people, who are also likelier to be front-line and “essential” workers. There is also a partisan bent to vaccinations, with Republicans generally being more hesitant than Democrats. If companies require vaccines for front-line workers, they risk alienating a group of people who, for whatever reason, tend to be more vaccine-hesitant. At the same time, if they don’t, they risk exacerbating racial, geographic, and income divides in vaccinations. Requiring shots for some but not all workers is a policy that “has the potential to really entrench some of these vaccine inequities,” warned Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University.

According to a recent survey from Just Capital, which tracks corporate social responsibility, in collaboration with the Harris Poll, Americans are becoming more amenable to employer vaccine mandates, with 46 percent of respondents saying they think companies should make workers get vaccinated in an August poll compared to 36 percent who said the same in June. But there are divides: 56 percent of people making over $100,000 want worker vaccine mandates compared to 46 percent of people making under $50,000, and just 28 percent of Black respondents agree with worker mandates compared to 53 percent of Hispanic respondents and 47 percent of white respondents.

A separate Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that vaccinated adults are much likelier to say the government should recommend employer vaccine mandates than unvaccinated adults, by 68 percent to 19 percent.

In other words, some of the workers who most urgently need the vaccine are those who don’t want it, or want to be told to get it. And companies are likely well aware that is part of what they’re facing.

“I don’t want to say that they don’t have an interest in protecting their workers, but the primary interest of a company is keeping the company running,” Bibbins-Domingo, the University of California epidemiologist, said. “While it is always helpful when business interests align with our public health goals, businesses are not public health agencies.”

On how to get workers vaccinated, there are a lot of thorny questions ahead

The conversation about how to compel people to get the Covid-19 vaccine is constantly evolving, including how private businesses should approach the matter. Not all worker groups and unions are in agreement, nor are companies or business groups or workers themselves. But as the clock ticks and the virus continues to spread, the situation is becoming more urgent.

United for Respect, a nonprofit that advocates for retail workers’ rights, including at Walmart, has not taken an official position on mandatory vaccinations. Instead, it is advocating for a $500 bonus for workers who get the vaccine. The Consumer Brands Association, which represents companies such as Clorox, Coca-Cola, and General Mills, says some of its members expect vaccine mandates will occur at some point, but not until the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval of the shots, which are currently under emergency use authorization. “[Consumer packaged goods] manufacturers are largely pursuing a carrot rather than a stick approach. Across the industry, substantial incentives are in place to encourage employees to get vaccinated. In the weeks and months ahead, we expect a stick approach and potential employer mandates to become more common,” said Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, in a statement to Vox.

The Business Roundtable, a lobbying group that represents CEOs from major corporations, said a number of its members (which include Walmart) have decided to mandate vaccines for some or all employees, while others are still deciphering how to navigate opposition from policymakers at the state and local levels. But in light of Covid-19 spikes and infectious variants, it expects additional announcements from members.

Clinton, from Unite Here Local 362, said he’s continuing to have ongoing conversations with members who are nervous about the vaccine, but resistance isn’t as prevalent as one might think. “Are there people who are anti-vaxxers or are doing ‘my body, my choice’ type of stuff that currently work at Disney? Certainly,” he said. “There’s not as many as I thought there would be; it just turns out they’re really loud, so it feels like there are more of them.” He thinks he’s gotten about 20 calls out of some 9,000 members.

Many companies are continuing to try to nudge employees with incentives to get vaccinated by offering time off and bonuses, and bringing vaccines to work, among other measures. Egee, from the National Retail Federation, said his members have had some success with incentives, but not a ton. “It didn’t move the needle a lot — probably a few percentage points here or there,— but we’ve done everything we could,” he said.

The decision for companies to mandate vaccines for all of their workers — and not just the ones it’s easiest for them to do so far — is complicated. There are no easy answers. If they require shots for people who really don’t want to get them, they might leave those people out of a job, find themselves struggling to hire workers, or face public backlash. If they require shots for some workers and not all, they risk making vaccine inequality across the US worse or sowing discord among groups of workers.

Companies generally don’t want to take many risks that could harm their businesses. In weighing requirements around Covid-19, there’s no risk-free scenario.

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