Health and Science

Covid vaccine mandates sweep across corporate America as delta variant spurs action

Key Points
  • More than a dozen large U.S. corporations, including Walmart, Google, Tyson Foods and United Airlines, have recently announced vaccine mandates for some or all of their workers.
  • The U.S. reported a seven-day average of more than 108,600 new cases per day as of Sunday, up 36% from a week earlier, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
United Airlines ramp services worker John Dalessandro receives a COVID-19 vaccine at United's onsite clinic at O'Hare International Airport on March 09, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

The U.S. government may not require that everyone get Covid-19 vaccines, but large employers across corporate America are stepping into the void.

More than a dozen large U.S. corporations, including Walmart, Google, Tyson Foods and United Airlines, have recently announced vaccine mandates for some or all of their workers.

"With rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the U.S. unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce," Dr. Claudia Coplein, Tyson's chief medical officer, said in a statement Tuesday.

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The U.S. reported a seven-day average of more than 108,600 new cases per day as of Sunday, up 36% from a week earlier, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. With 83% of sequenced coronavirus cases nationwide stemming from the delta variant, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, vaccinations are seen by health officials and corporate management as the safest way to get employees who have been working remotely back to the office.

Though some employers now unilaterally mandate vaccines, most have limited the scope of their guidance to certain offices or specific groups of workers.

Google and Facebook have mandated Covid immunizations for anyone returning to their U.S. offices. Walmart, which has 1.6 million U.S. employees, has imposed a vaccine mandate for all corporate and management staff, while store employees must wear masks in high-risk counties.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon outlined the retailer's plans to keep "gradually coming back into our office spaces with the idea of being closer to pre-pandemic levels after Labor Day."

In April 2020, a Gallup poll found that 70% of employees surveyed were working from home. Companies are attempting to bring their workforce back into the office, but some have already begun pushing back their return dates as Covid case counts surge. Late last month, Google postponed its return to office deadline to Oct. 18, a delay of more than a month.

"Although I'm not a big fan of mandates, we need to use a variety of incentives to encourage as many people as possible to practice effective infection control," said Dr. Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. "If that's the best or only way to motivate some people, then that's one tool in our toolbox."

United Airlines said Friday that all of its roughly 67,000-person U.S. employees must provide proof that they are vaccinated against Covid no later than Oct. 25, becoming the country's first major airline to issue such a mandate. Employees risk termination if they don't comply, though United said there will be exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

"We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees," United Airlines' CEO Scott Kirby and the airline's president, Brett Hart, wrote to employees announcing the vaccine requirement. "But, we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you're at work, and the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated."

Budget carrier Frontier Airlines followed suit hours later with its own mandate but said employees either need to show proof of inoculation by Oct. 1 or take regular Covid tests.

For better or worse, vaccines and other tools to fight the virus such as masks, have become controversial in the U.S. But health officials say the measures are necessary to save lives.

"To leave it up to the individual is to say that there are people who are going to make a choice that puts co-workers at risk," said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease physician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "So I think it's a responsible, important, necessary thing to do."

Even companies with the most expansive mandates are required by law to allow some exceptions.

Facebook's vice president of people, Lori Goler, said the company of nearly 59,000 global employees will have a process in place for people who can't be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and that it's working with experts "to ensure our return to office plans prioritize everyone's health and safety."

The Alphabet Workers Union, which represents over 800 employees across Google and its parent company, expressed concern over the exceptions to Google's vaccine mandate, saying the company has provided insufficient details surrounding the exemption process. A spokesperson for the union said the mandate exists "to convince white collar workers to come back to the office," while "a boatload of people" remain unvaccinated.

Google did not respond to a request for comment. Alphabet employed over 135,000 employees worldwide as of last year.

Other companies have faced pushback from unions on their vaccine directives. After Tyson announced last week that all 120,000 of its office and plant personnel must get vaccinated, United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 24,000 Tyson meatpacking workers, voiced reservations about mandating vaccines that lack the FDA's full approval.

"UFCW 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," UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. Perrone added that he wanted to ensure Tyson's union workers receive paid time off to receive and adjust to the vaccine.

United and its pilots' union, the Air Line Pilots Association, agreed earlier this year not to implement a vaccine mandate for its nearly 13,000 aviators. United offered extra pay to pilots who received the vaccine and up to three days off for flight attendants. More than 90% of the pilots and about 80% of flight attendants are inoculated, the company said. The union said that some aviators who don't plan to get vaccinated should talk with their pilot chief.

"The vaccine requirement represents an employment change we believe warrants further negotiations to ensure our safety, welfare, and bargaining rights are maintained, the pilots union said.

Other airlines including American, Southwest and Delta said they have not made any changes to their policies to encourage, but not mandate, vaccines for their employees. In May, Delta was the first major carrier to require the vaccine for new employees. United had followed suit. American and Delta have offered incentives like extra time off for employees who get vaccinated. Delta says more than 73% of its staff is vaccinated.

When asked how it would react to a potential companywide requirement, Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents some 15,000 pilots at American, said: "Our position is it's a personal choice between pilots and their medical professional. As the bargaining agent for the pilots, any change to the conditions of employment must be discussed with the representative union." The union last week, however, urged pilots to get vaccinated and estimated in a staff note that about 60% of them are inoculated.

By mandating inoculations, corporate America is taking action in a way federal legislators cannot, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. Outside of requiring vaccines for its own employees, Reiss said the federal government "probably doesn't have the power to say everybody in the U.S. has to get vaccinated or pay a fine."  

But insurance agencies might, a recent op-ed by Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal and Glenn Kramon in The New York Times suggests. In the model of policies that deny coverage for injuries sustained during dangerous activities, the authors indicate that insurers could start "penalizing the unvaccinated" because their refusal to immunize poses a threat to public health. Rosenthal is editor in chief of Kaiser Health News and Kramon is a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Companies also have the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on their side, said Thomas Lenz, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. As long as their mandates abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the commission said in May, companies could require "all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated" against the coronavirus.

Despite the EEOC's guidance, some businesses are still refraining from issuing mandates for fear of alienating their personnel, Lenz said.

"We see that employers are as concerned with what they perceive as a skill shortage, a labor shortage, as anything in deciding whether to mandate the vaccinations," Lenz said. "And for that reason, employers don't want to scare people away, as they feel they might be able to accommodate and keep the workforce in some other way."

-CNBC's Nate Rattner contributed reporting.