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The Vaccine Mandate: Controversies Over Workers Versus Consumers

5 MINUTE READ | September 16, 2021

The Vaccine Mandate: Controversies Over Workers Versus Consumers

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Abby Long

Abby is PMG’s senior managing editor, where she leads the company’s editorial program and manages the PMG Blog and Insights Hub. As a writer, editor, and marketing communications strategist with nearly a decade of experience, Abby's work in showcasing PMG’s unique expertise through POVs, research reports, and thought leadership regularly informs business strategy and media investments for some of the most iconic brands in the world. Named among the AAF Dallas 32 Under 32, her expertise in advertising, media strategy, and consumer trends has been featured in Ad Age, Business Insider, and Digiday.

Last Thursday, President Biden outlined a six-pronged federal action plan to address the pandemic, including sweeping federal orders requiring all federal employees to be vaccinated, while companies of more than 100 employees must require vaccination or deploy weekly testing. Biden’s remarks were met with praise and criticism, as the action plan becomes the latest development in the growing controversy over state’s rights, personal freedom, and public health and safety that’s playing out across the country.

The new policy is expected to affect as many as 100 million Americans, including workers in the private sector, health care industry, and federal contractors. Already, companies like Disney, Tyson Foods, and United Airlines have implemented vaccine mandates for their employees, while Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of more than 200 global business leaders, praised the move in a statement released last week. 

“Business Roundtable welcomes the Biden Administration’s continued vigilance in the fight against COVID. America’s business leaders know how critical vaccination and testing are in defeating the pandemic, which is why so many have invested resources in encouraging and incentivizing their customers and employees to get vaccinated, including providing paid time off. Over the past several weeks, many companies have decided to implement a vaccine mandate for some or all of their employees, a decision we applaud.” 

Companies like Goldman Sachs and Facebook have for months required corporate office workers to show proof of vaccination before returning to corporate offices, while big chains like Walmart and Target don’t require customers that enter their storefronts to be vaccinated, citing the high risks of asking frontline staff to help enforce the rule. Industry trade groups say that requiring customers to mask up throughout the pandemic led to countless altercations across the U.S. between customers who oppose mask-wearing and store staff, as well as between flight attendants and travelers on commercial airlines. Mandating vaccines would pose an even greater challenge and jeopardize worker safety. 

In contrast, for instance, Walmart, Walgreens, and Gap require corporate employees to be vaccinated amid the return to the office, but not frontline staff in stores. Walmart told CNN that the company hopes that requiring corporate staff to be vaccinated will help convince more retail workers to do the same. 

“We want to stick with the message that strongly encourages everybody to get vaccinated, but don’t want to create a situation where employees basically have a risk of physical assault, because it happened last year,” said Larry Lynch, Senior VP of Science and Industry for the National Restaurant Association. Leaders at the National Retail Federation expressed similar concerns citing that vaccine mandates for customers wouldn’t be the right step for retail chains, as it would be too difficult to enforce. 

Countries like France, Italy, and Canada have taken the opposite approach in sectors like travel, as each country has or will soon impose vaccination requirements for passengers on domestic flights. International travel is already restricted to vaccinated passengers or people who show proof of a negative COVID-19 test across dozens of countries. Public health officials remain eager for the U.S. to implement similar measures on domestic flights, with Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, saying, “If you want the privilege of traveling, you need to get vaccinated.” 

Executives from American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and United have all pushed back against mandating vaccines for domestic flights, citing that any measure would “sap consumer demand.” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told MSNBC that it would be “logistically impractical to do domestically,” though it would ultimately be up to the federal government to direct it. According to Bloomberg, “a top aide signaled Friday that the administration isn’t interested in mandates aimed at consumers,” though, in a recent interview, Dr. Fauci said he’d support vaccine mandates for air travel.

Related: In August, Delta Airlines became one of the first companies to announce a $200 health insurance premium for unvaccinated workers, and within two weeks of the announcement, roughly 20 percent of Delta’s unvaccinated workers have chosen to get the vaccine. 

While companies continue to contend with the best ways to roll out vaccine requirements, the Biden Administration has echoed a focus on workers — rather than consumers —  with the proposed federal mandate, touting that workplace policies remain the most efficient and effective way to boost vaccination rates and curb the pandemic. The federal vaccine mandates are to be enacted through new rules via the U.S Occupational Safety and Health Administration and are expected to carry penalties of $14,000 per violation. 

According to the latest Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index, most Americans support vaccine mandates for federal workers as well as private companies. 

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Labor unions representing millions of workers “expressed a mix of support and reservations” for federal vaccine mandates, while Republican officials criticized the new action plan as “government overreach.” As of Monday, the governors of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, and Texas, among other states, have threatened legal action. Morning Consult reports that three out of five Americans support the federal vaccine mandate though public health officials cautioned that it remains unclear when or how the new federal vaccine requirements would be finalized, enforced, or how anticipated legal challenges against them would play out in the weeks and months to come. According to The New York Times, “Legal experts say the federal government has broad authority to address the public health crisis created by the pandemic, and [President] Biden on Friday predicted that his health orders would survive legal challenges.”

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