Some of the nation’s largest employers, for months reluctant to wade into the fraught issue of whether Covid-19 vaccinations should be mandatory for workers, have in recent days been compelled to act as infections have surged again.
On Tuesday, Tyson Foods told its 120,000 workers in offices, slaughterhouses and poultry plants across the country that they would need to be vaccinated by Nov. 1 as a “condition of employment.” And Microsoft, which employs roughly 100,000 people in the United States, said it would require proof of vaccination for all employees, vendors and guests to gain access to its offices.
Last week, Google said it would require employees who returned to the company’s offices to be vaccinated, while Disney announced a mandate for all salaried and nonunion hourly workers who work on site.
Other companies, including Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, and Lyft and Uber, have taken a less forceful approach, mandating vaccines for white-collar workers but not for millions of frontline workers. Those moves essentially set up a divide between the employees who work in offices and employees who deal directly with the public and, collectively, have been more reluctant to get the shots.
different set of reasons that are not primarily political. They say many of their members are worried about potential health side effects or bristle at the idea of an employer’s interfering in what they regard as a personal health decision.
Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, representing 1.3 million employees in grocery chains such as Kroger and at large meatpacking plants, said he would not support employer mandates until the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the vaccine, which is being administered on an emergency basis.
“You can’t just say, ‘Accept the mandate or hit the door,’” Mr. Perrone said in an interview on Monday.
After Tyson announced its vaccine mandate on Tuesday, Mr. Perrone issued a statement that the union “will be meeting with Tyson in the coming weeks to discuss this vaccine mandate and to ensure that the rights of these workers are protected and this policy is fairly implemented.”
several meat plants became virus hot spots. Now, it is requiring its leadership team to be vaccinated by Sept. 24 and the rest of its office workers by Oct. 1. Frontline employees have until Nov. 1 to be fully inoculated, extra time the company is providing because there are “significantly more frontline team members than office workers who still need to be vaccinated,” a Tyson spokesman said.
Throughout the pandemic, companies have treaded carefully in carrying out public health measures while trying to avoid harm to their businesses.
Last year, when major retailers began requiring customers to wear masks, they quietly told their employees not to enforce the rule if a customer was adamant about not wearing one.
Companies like Walmart have tried a similarly tentative approach with vaccine requirements.
Walmart announced last week that it was requiring the roughly 17,000 workers in its Arkansas headquarters to be vaccinated but not those in stores and distribution centers, who make up the bulk of its 1.6 million U.S. employees.
In a statement, the retailer said the limited mandate would send a message to all workers that they should get vaccinated.
“We’re asking our leaders, which already have a higher vaccination rate, to make their example clear,” the company said. “We’re hoping that will influence even more of our frontline associates to become vaccinated.”
Lyft told their corporate employees last week that they would need to show proof they had been inoculated before returning to company offices.
Requiring vaccinations “is the most effective way to create a safe environment and give our team members peace of mind as we return to the office,” said Ashley Adams, a spokeswoman for Lyft.
But those mandates did not extend to the workers the companies contract with to drive millions of customers to and from their destinations. The drivers are being encouraged to be vaccinated, but neither Lyft or Uber has plans to require them.
Public health experts warn that limited mandates may reinforce the gaping divide between the nation’s high- and low-wage workers without furthering the public health goal of substantially increasing vaccination rates.
They also say it’s naïve to think that workers who resisted vaccines for ideological reasons would suddenly change their mind after seeing a company’s higher-paid executives receive the shots.
“Ultimately we want to ensure that they really have the broadest reach,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice dean for population health and health equity at the University of California, San Francisco, said of company directives. “Failing to do that, I think, will only cause others to be more suspicious of these types of mandates.”
Legally, companies are likely to be on solid ground if they mandate vaccines. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers could require immunization, though companies that do could still face lawsuits.
George W. Ingham, a partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells, said companies with mandates would potentially have to make difficult decisions.
“They are going to have to fire high performers and low performers who refuse vaccines,” he said. “They have to be consistent.” Reasons an employee could be exempted include religious beliefs or a disability, though the process of sorting those out on an individual basis promises to be an arduous one.
Companies may also have to contend with pushback from state governments. Ten states have passed legislation limiting the ability to require vaccines for students, employees or the public, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Disney is among the few big companies pursuing a broad vaccine mandate for their work forces, even in the face of pushback from some employees.
In addition to mandating vaccines for nonunion workers who are on-site, Disney said all new hires — union and nonunion — would be required to be fully vaccinated before starting their jobs. Nonunion hourly workers include theme park guest-relations staff, in-park photographers, executive assistants and some seasonal theme park employees.
It was the furthest that Disney could go without a sign-off from the dozen unions that represent the bulk of its employees. Walt Disney World in Florida, for instance, has more than 65,000 workers; roughly 38,000 are union members.
Disney is now seeking union approval for the mandate both in Florida and in California, where tens of thousands of workers at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim are unionized. Most of the leaders of Disney’s unions appear to be in favor of a mandate — as long as accommodations can be worked out for those refusing the vaccine for medical, religious or other acceptable reasons.
“Vaccinations are safe and effective and the best line of defense to protect workers, frontline or otherwise,” Eric Clinton, the president of UNITE HERE Local 362, which represents roughly 8,000 attraction workers and custodians at Disney World, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Clinton declined to comment on any pushback from his membership, but another union leader at Disney World, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly, said “a fair number” of his members were up in arms over Disney-mandated vaccinations, citing personal choice and fear of the vaccine.
“The company has probably done a calculation and decided that some people will unfortunately quit rather than protect themselves, and so be it,” the person said.
Lananh Nguyen contributed reporting.
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Marilyn Reece, the lead bakery clerk at a Kroger in Batesville, Miss., started noticing more customers walking around the store without masks this month after the state mandate to wear face coverings was repealed. Kroger still requires them, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
When Ms. Reece, a 56-year-old breast-cancer survivor, sees those shoppers, she prays. “Please, please, don’t let me have to wait on them, because in my heart, I don’t want to ignore them, I don’t want to refuse them,” she said. “But then I’m thinking I don’t want to get sick and die, either. It’s not that people are bad, but you don’t know who they’ve come into contact with.”
Ms. Reece’s heightened anxiety is shared by retail and fast-food workers in states like Mississippi and Texas, where governments have removed mask mandates before a majority of people have been vaccinated and while troubling new variants of the coronavirus are appearing. It feels like a return to the early days of the pandemic, when businesses said customers must wear masks but there was no legal requirement and numerous shoppers simply refused. Many workers say that their stores do not enforce the requirement, and that if they do approach customers, they risk verbal or physical altercations.
“It’s given a great false sense of security, and it’s no different now than it was a year ago,” said Ms. Reece, who is not yet able to receive a vaccine because of allergies. “The only difference we have now is people are getting vaccinated but enough people haven’t gotten vaccinated that they should have lifted the mandate.”
translated into extra pay on top of their low wages. Grocery employees were not initially given priority for vaccinations in most states, even as health experts cautioned the public to limit time in grocery stores because of the risk posed by new coronavirus variants. (Texas opened availability to everyone 16 and older on Monday.)
The issue has gained serious prominence: On Monday, President Biden called on governors and mayors to maintain or reinstate orders to wear masks as the nation grapples with a potential rise in virus cases.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly 900,000 grocery workers, said this month that at least 34,700 grocery workers around the country had been infected with or exposed to Covid-19 and that at least 155 workers had died from the virus. The recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., has only rattled workers further and added to concerns about their own safety.
Diane Cambre, a 50-year-old floor supervisor at a Kroger in Midlothian, Texas, said she had spent much of the past year worrying about bringing the virus home to her 9-year-old son and dreading interactions with customers who were flippant about the possibility of getting sick. She wears a double mask in the store even though it irritates her skin, already itchy from psoriasis, and changes her clothes as soon as she gets home.
end the statewide mask mandate the next week, Ms. Cambre said, customers immediately “started coming in not wearing a mask and stuff, and it’s been pretty hard getting anybody to wear one.” Management is supposed to offer masks to people who aren’t wearing them, but if they don’t put them on, nothing else is done, she said.
tantrums from cart-pushing adults.
“Some of our customers are drama-prone, so they’ll start yelling, ‘I’m not wearing that mask,’ and you can tell they’re very rude in their voice and very harsh,” Ms. Cambre, a U.F.C.W. member, said. Overseeing the self-checkout aisles has been especially challenging, she said, because customers who need help will demand that she come over, making it impossible to maintain six feet of distance.
At times when she has tried to explain the need for distancing, “they say, ‘OK, and that’s just a government thing,’” she said. “It really takes a toll on you mentally.”
A Kroger representative said that the chain would “continue to require everyone in our stores across the country to wear masks until all our frontline grocery associates can receive the Covid-19 vaccine,” and that it was offering $100 one-time payments to workers who received the vaccine.
The differing state and business mandates have some workers worried about more confrontations. The retail industry was already trying to address the issue last fall, when a major trade group helped put together training to help workers manage and de-escalate conflicts with customers who resisted masks, social distancing and store capacity limits. Refusing service to people without masks, or asking them to leave, has led to incidents in the past year like a cashier’s being punched in the face, a Target employee’s breaking his arm and the fatal shooting of a Family Dollar security guard.
This month in League City, Texas, near Houston, a 53-year-old man who refused to wear a required mask in a Jack in the Box confronted employees and then stabbed a store manager three times, according to a report in The Houston Chronicle. On March 14, a San Antonio ramen shop was vandalized with racist graffiti after its owner criticized Mr. Abbott on television for lifting the Texas mask mandate.
Office Depot in Texas City after she refused to wear a mask or leave the store, just days after an arrest warrant was issued for her in Galveston, Texas, for behaving similarly in a Bank of America location.
MaryAnn Kaylor, the owner of two antique stores in Dallas, including Lula B’s Design District, said the mask mandate repeal mattered a lot for stores and people’s behavior.
“He should have focused more on getting people vaccinated instead of trying to open everything up,” she said of Governor Abbott, noting that Texas has one of the country’s slowest vaccination rates.
“You still have cases every day in Texas, and you have people dying still from Covid,” she said. “This complete lifting of mandates is stupid. It shouldn’t have been based on politics — it should have been based on science.”
Some Texans have started to seek out mask-friendly establishments. Ms. Kaylor said that lists of Dallas businesses that require masks had been circulating on Facebook, and that people were consulting them to figure out where to buy groceries and do other shopping.
Emily Francois, a sales associate at a Walmart in Port Arthur, Texas, said that customers had been ignoring signs to wear masks and that Walmart had not been enforcing the policy. So Ms. Francois stands six feet away from shoppers who don’t wear masks, even though that upsets some of them. “My life is more important,” she said.
“I see customers coming in without a mask and they’re coughing, sneezing, they’re not covering their mouths,” said Ms. Francois, who has worked at Walmart for 14 years and is a member of United for Respect, an advocacy group. “Customers coming in the store without masks make us feel like we aren’t worthy, we aren’t safe.”
Phillip Keene, a spokesman for Walmart, said that “our policy of requiring associates and customers to wear masks in our stores has helped protect them during the pandemic, and we’re not lifting those measures at this time.”
Even before the pandemic, Ms. Reece, the Kroger clerk in Mississippi, was wearing a mask to protect herself from the flu because of her cancer diagnosis, she said.
She said 99 percent of customers in her small store had worn masks during the pandemic. “When they had to put it on, they did put it on,” she said. “It’s like giving a child a piece of candy — that child is going to eat that candy unless you take it from them.”
She is concerned about the potential harm from new variants, particularly from those who don’t cover their mouths. “You just have to pray and pray you don’t get within six feet of them, or 10 feet for that matter,” said Ms. Reece, who is also a U.F.C.W. member and has worked for Kroger for more than 30 years. “I know people want it to be back to normal, but you can’t just will it to be back to normal.”