More broadly, the staffing shortages have put a new spotlight on a potential vaccine-or-testing mandate from the Biden administration, which major retailers have been resisting. The fear of losing workers appears to be looming large, especially now.

While the retail industry initially cited the holiday season rush for its resistance to such rules, it has more recently pointed to the burden of testing unvaccinated workers. After oral arguments in the case on Friday, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority expressed skepticism about whether the Biden administration had legal authority to mandate that large employers require workers to be vaccinated.

The National Retail Federation, a major industry lobbying group, said in a statement last week that it “continues to believe that OSHA exceeded its authority in promulgating its vaccine mandate.” The group estimated that the order would require 20 million tests a week nationally, based on external data on unvaccinated workers, and that “such testing capacity currently does not exist.”

When the top managers at Mr. Waugh’s Stop & Shop store began asking employees whether they were vaccinated in preparation for the federal vaccine mandates that could soon take effect, he said, a large number expressed concern to him about being asked to disclose that information.

“It was concerning to see that so many people were distressed,” he said, though all of the employees complied.

Ms. Luick of Macy’s near Seattle said that she worked with several vocal opponents of the Covid-19 vaccines and that she anticipated that at least some of her colleagues would resign if they were asked to provide vaccination status or proof of negative tests.

Still, Macy’s was among major employers that started asking employees for their vaccination status last week ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on Friday and said it might require proof of negative tests beginning on Feb. 16.

“Our primary focus at this stage is preparing our members for an eventual mandate to ensure they have the information and tools they need to manage their work force and meet the needs of their customers,” said Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes companies like Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Gap and Walmart.

As seasonal Covid-19 surges become the norm, unions and companies are looking for consistent policies. Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the food and commercial workers union in Northern California, said the retail industry needed to put in place more sustainable supports for workers who got ill.

For example, he said, a trust fund jointly administered by the union and several employers could no longer offer Covid-related sick days for union members.

“We have to start treating this as endemic,” Mr. Araby said. “And figuring out what are the structural issues we have to put forward to deal with this.”

Kellen Browning contributed reporting.

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Whiplash on U.S. Vaccine Mandate Leaves Employers ‘Totally Confused’

“You can’t really mandate booster shots yet,” he said. “It hasn’t been signed off on by any federal agency.”

JPMorgan Chase, whose decision to require vaccines is complicated by its sprawling retail operations across the United States, declined to comment on how the court’s most recent decision, along with the recent spike in cases, affects any plans to mandate vaccines. But the bank on Friday told its American employees who do not work in bank branches that “each group should assess who needs to come into the office, work priorities and who should revert to working from home on a more regular basis over the next few weeks.”

Walmart, which has mandated vaccines for mainly its corporate staff, also did not have any comment on broadening that requirement. Only 66 percent of its roughly 1.6 million U.S. employees are vaccinated, according to data compiled by the Shift Project at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Legal questions about the OSHA rule are far from resolved. Immediately after the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled on Friday, several of the many plaintiffs who have challenged that rule asked the Supreme Court to intervene as part of its “emergency” docket. Appeals from the Sixth Circuit are assigned for review by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who under Supreme Court rules could in theory make a decision on his own but is more likely to refer the matter to the full Supreme Court. With the Labor Department now delaying full enforcement of its rule until Feb. 9, the justices have several weeks to ask for abbreviated briefings if they want them.

“Things are going back and forth literally in a matter of hours,” said Sydney Heimbrock, an adviser on industry and government issues at Qualtrics, who works with hundreds of clients on using the company’s software to track employee vaccination status. “The confusion stems from the on-again-off-again, is it a rule or isn’t it a rule? The litigations, appeals, reversing decisions and making decisions.”

Even the spread of Omicron hasn’t changed the position of some of the vaccine rule’s most ardent opponents. The National Retail Federation, one of the trade groups challenging the administration’s vaccine rule, is among those that have filed a petition with the Supreme Court. The group is in favor of vaccinations but has pushed for companies to get more time to carry out mandates. Still, even as it fights the administration’s rule, the federation is also holding twice weekly calls with members to compare notes on how to carry it out.

“There’s no question that the increased number of variants like Omicron certainly don’t make it less dangerous,” said Stephanie Martz, the group’s chief administrative officer and general counsel. “The legitimate, remaining question is, is this inherent to the workplace?”

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Biden’s Covid Vaccine Mandate Reinstated for Large Businesses

But Judge Joan L. Larsen, a Trump appointee, dissented, arguing — as had the Fifth Circuit panel before her — that the agency had exceeded its legal authority.

“The mandate is aimed directly at protecting the unvaccinated from their own choices,” Judge Larsen wrote. “Vaccines are freely available, and unvaccinated people may choose to protect themselves at any time. And because the secretary likely lacks congressional authority to force them to protect themselves, the remaining stay factors cannot tip the balance.”

All of the judges on the Fifth Circuit panel that had blocked the rule were conservative Republican appointees.

Challengers to the decision could appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which is controlled by a conservative bloc of six Republican appointees. (The Supreme Court this month refused to block New York’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus even when they cite religious objections.)

Challengers could also appeal to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Of its 16 sitting judges, five were appointed by Democrats and 11 were appointed by Republicans. (However, one of the Republican appointees, Judge Helene N. White, was originally a nominee of a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, before being renominated by a Republican one, George W. Bush, as part of a political deal.)

Conditions on the ground are rapidly changing, with new cases surging, apparently because of the more-infectious Omicron variant. The Justice Department last month warned that keeping the mandate from coming into effect “would likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day, in addition to large numbers of hospitalizations, other serious health effects and tremendous costs.”

The OSHA rule, alongside a separate requirement for federal contractors, has helped drive a number of large companies to announce a form of vaccine mandate, including Procter & Gamble, IBM and American Airlines. Others, like Tyson Foods and Google, introduced mandates on their own, in the face of the rising risk of the Delta variant.

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Why Retailers Are Fighting a Vaccine Mandate Before the Holidays

The holiday shopping season has arrived, and retailers are ringing it in by doing everything from cutting prices to stocking showrooms to lure back customers who stayed at home last year. What the biggest of them are not doing is the one thing the White House and many public health experts have asked them to: mandate that their workers be vaccinated.

As other industries with workers in public-facing roles, like airlines and hospitals, have moved toward requiring vaccines, retailers have dug in their heels, citing concerns about a labor shortage. And a portion of one of the country’s largest work forces will remain unvaccinated, just as shoppers are expected to flock to stores.

At the heart of the retailers’ resistance is a worry about having enough people to work. In a tight labor market, retailers have been offering perks like higher wages and better hours to prospective employees in hopes of having enough people to staff their stores and distribution centers. The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, has estimated that retailers will hire up to 665,000 seasonal workers this year.

held up in litigation, challenged by a number of lawsuits from a broad coalition of opponents, and could make its way to the Supreme Court. Court filings by the administration warn that blocking the rule would “likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day.”

have increased more than 20 percent over the past two weeks.

“It’s a pretty big ask, there’s no one denying that,” Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said of requiring vaccinations for retail employees. “But we’ve also tried a lot of other things to help people get vaccinated — and I think a mandate right now is what we need to get over that barrier.”

Walmart, the nation’s biggest private employer, declined to comment on the federation’s lawsuit or its plans for vaccinations or testing. A spokeswoman for Target said the company had “started taking the necessary steps to meet the requirements of the new Covid-19 rules for large companies as soon as the details were announced.”

Spokespeople for several retailers on the federation’s board, including Kohl’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Saks, declined to comment for this article.

have not required them for frontline workers, sharing concerns about challenges in hiring. But those workers, including about four million at stores, are among the most vulnerable. They interact frequently with the public and are less likely to be vaccinated themselves. Mandates at Tyson, United Airlines and several health care companies indicate that when faced with the prospect of losing their job, employees most frequently choose inoculation.

“We know vaccine requirements work,” said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the White House. “The federal government, the country’s largest employer, has successfully implemented its requirement in a way that has boosted vaccinations and avoids any disruptions to operations.”

Still, companies mandating vaccines have faced protests or lawsuits. In some states legislation has been passed to impede it. Disney, for instance, paused a mandate for employees at Disney World in Florida after it became illegal for employers in the state to require workers to get the shot.

The panic and precautions tied to Covid-19 have played out at retail stores throughout the pandemic and ensnared their workers.

Guitar Center and Dillard’s to argue that they needed to stay open — and keep their employees coming in — despite the worsening public health crisis. Workers have been at the forefront of disputes around mask mandates and then mask enforcement. Retail chains like REI have been criticized for failing to inform employees about Covid cases in stores. Grocery store workers were not given priority access to vaccines in many states.

Target and Walmart, throughout the pandemic. And while they are still facing rising prices and supply chain strain, executives have indicated recently that pressure on staffing has waned.

“We feel really good about our staffing going into the holiday season,” Brian Cornell, Target’s chief executive, told CNBC last week. He added that the company’s retention numbers were “some of the strongest in our history,” which he attributed to perks and safety measures.

Retailers are betting that consumers will be comfortable shopping in stores, where foot traffic is already higher than in 2020, regardless of the industry’s efforts to fight the new vaccination and testing requirements. And for those who are concerned about the lack of vaccinations, the companies have bolstered their e-commerce operations and curbside pickup offerings in the past year, though in-store shopping often leads to more purchases and fewer returns.

When asked what Macy’s would tell concerned customers about shopping in stores, Mr. Gennette said: “What I would say is we encourage every one of our colleagues to be vaccinated and every colleague wears a mask in our stores and warehouses to protect themselves and others.”

imploring companies to move forward with the Labor Department rules.

“The hope was to provide some perspective for business leaders to remind them this is not a political issue,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who was one of the signatories. Dr. Jha said it was important for companies in all industries to follow the rule, noting that retailers play a particular role, given the nature of their employee base. He said those measures should be put in place during the holiday season — not after — especially as that is when case numbers are expected to rise.

“Do they really want to be superspreader places during the holiday season and be responsible for their employees getting sick and for their employees spreading it to customers?” Dr. Jha said.

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