Employers held off for months on making decisions about vaccine mandates, worried about legal and political pushback. But facing renewed pandemic restrictions, and with encouragement from government leaders, a growing number of the country’s biggest companies have been embracing the idea.
On Friday, Walmart and the Walt Disney Company introduced new requirements that some employees be vaccinated. They followed similar announcements this week from Google, Facebook, Uber and others.
Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, with nearly 1.6 million workers, said vaccines would be mandatory for employees in its headquarters and for managers who traveled in the United States. The mandate does not apply to employees in stores, clubs, and distribution and fulfillment centers.
“We believe we have an important role to play and believe the requirement for vaccinations for our leaders is key to driving toward an end to this pandemic,” Walmart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, said in a memo announcing the mandate. “Let’s set the example.”
Walmart did not provide the number of employees covered by the mandate, but it previously said it planned to house up to 17,000 workers in its new headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
Disney said salaried and nonunion hourly U.S. employees at its sites must be fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated workers who are already on site will have 60 days to get the immunization, and new hires will be required to be fully vaccinated before starting work.
Even as the companies announced new requirements, large groups of workers were left out of the mandates. Disney said it had begun conversations with its unions about mandatory vaccinations, but Walmart’s retail and warehouse workers in the U.S. are not covered by collective bargaining agreements. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on why those workers were not included in the mandate.
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission first issued guidance in December that employers could mandate vaccines — and reiterated that message in June. But companies have been worried that mandates would bring litigation and have been fearful of employee pushback during a labor shortage.
Many had hoped incentives like cash bonuses would be enough to encourage vaccination, but the pace of immunizations has stagnated. On Friday, Walmart said it was doubling, to $150, its reward to employees who get vaccinated. But Rise Up Retail, a worker advocacy group, argued that Walmart should go even higher, quoting a Walmart employee who said a $500 bonus would “significantly boost vaccination rates.”
Recent court decisions have upheld employers’ rights to require vaccinations, including a ruling that said Houston Methodist Hospital could require health care workers to get shots. And a series of governments at various levels have imposed their own mandates. President Biden announced on Thursday that all civilian federal employees must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
“Once you get a little momentum, you get a sort of tidal wave,” said Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, who was a member of Mr. Biden’s Covid-19 Advisory Board during the transition between presidential administrations. He has advocated employer mandates, arguing they could help the country achieve herd immunity. He suggested that businesses had been waiting for “the other guy to do it, and then everyone piled on.”
The highly contagious Delta variant also showed that the coronavirus was not yet done disrupting corporate decision-making. Executives who had been hoping for a return to some degree of normalcy were faced on Tuesday with a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that even vaccinated people should resume wearing masks indoors in some parts of the country.
“It’s just been a nightmare for the management level,” said Mary Kay O’Neill, a partner at Mercer, a human resources consulting firm. “And they’re like, ‘OK, let’s just get vaccinated.’”
As businesses considered the spike in infections, they also revisited long-awaited plans for the return to office.
The New York Times Company indefinitely postponed its planned return to the office on Friday. The company, which employs about 4,700 people, had been planning for workers to start to return, for at least three days a week, in September. Its offices will remain open for those who wanted to go in voluntarily, with proof of vaccination.
Earlier this week, Lyft postponed its return to office until February. Uber and Google both pushed their expected return to October and said vaccines would be required to enter the office, and Twitter shut down its San Francisco and New York offices, putting a halt to reopening plans.
Katie Robertson contributed reporting.
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