Why Retailers Are Fighting Vaccine Mandates

A Target employee delivers a pickup order to a customer in the Bronx, Sept. 30, 2020. (Amr Alfiky/The New York Times)

The holiday shopping season has arrived and retailers are doing everything they can from slashing prices to stocking showrooms to lure back customers who stayed at home last year. What the biggest of them aren’t doing is the one thing the White House and many public health experts have asked them to do: require their employees to be vaccinated.

While other industries with employees in public positions, such as airlines and hospitals, are mandating vaccines, retailers have dug in their heels and voiced concerns about labor shortages. And some of one of the country’s largest workforces will remain unvaccinated, just as shoppers are expected to flock to the stores.

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

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For example, Macy’s said it planned to hire 76,000 full-time and part-time employees this season. The retailer has offered referral bonuses of up to $500 for any friend or family member who recruits employees to join the company. Macy’s this fall asked company staff to get vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19 before entering its offices. But store staff is a different story.

“We have a lot of stores that have a lot of openings, and any ruling that we have to oblige those colleagues to get vaccinated before Christmas will only exacerbate our labor shortage and enter a really critical period for us,” Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief executive, said in an interview.

The industry showed its strength on the issue this month when the Biden administration instructed companies with 100 or more employees to require vaccines or weekly tests by Jan. 4. Five days after that announcement, the National Retail Federation sued to halt the effort.

“We all agree with the assumption that vaccines are good and that vaccines save lives,” Stephanie Martz, NRF’s chief of administration, said in an interview Monday.

“But at the same time, you can’t just say, ‘Okay, make sure it is.’ ”

The injunction is now held up in lawsuits, challenged by a number of lawsuits from a broad coalition of opponents, and could find its way to the Supreme Court. Lawsuits from the administration warn that blocking the rule “would likely cost tens or even hundreds of lives a day”.

Gennette, who sits on the federation’s board, said Macy’s would like to see the order placed in the first quarter, which typically begins in February for the industry. The federation repeats this, which has said it wants to push back the deadline by a few months.

“I support it — I’d just like to have it on a timetable that works for us,” Gennette said. “We need more time.”

Many health experts say worker mandates are the only way to help the country get out of the pandemic, as rampant misinformation and politicization of the coronavirus have helped suppress vaccination rates. The vaccination rate for individuals 12 years of age and older in the United States is about 69%, with rates in some parts of the country as low as 40%. The average daily number of cases has increased by more than 20% in the past two weeks.

“It’s a pretty big question; no one is denying that,” said Crystal Watson, a senior scientist at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, of mandating immunizations for retail workers. But we’ve also tried many 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 largest 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 begun taking necessary steps to comply with the requirements of the new COVID-19 rules for large businesses as soon as the details were announced.

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

“I think employers are ashamed and ashamed of what they are objecting to and are therefore using the NRF as a cover,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

He added: “If you had the choice to go to a workplace, or as a customer to go to a store, it would say, ‘All our employees have been vaccinated or tested,’ or another store that says, ‘ We have no idea who vaccinated or tested,’ which would you choose? And that’s why, say, Acme Department Store doesn’t want to advertise that it promotes bad public policy.”

Many employers in industries such as retail, which have mandated vaccines in corporate offices, do not require them for frontline workers because they are concerned about hiring challenges. But those workers, including about 4 million in stores, are among the most vulnerable. They have a lot of contact with the public and are less likely to be vaccinated. Mandates at Tyson, United Airlines and several health care companies indicate that workers are most likely to opt for vaccination when faced with the prospect of losing their jobs.

“We know the vaccine requirements are working,” said Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesperson. “The federal government, the nation’s largest employer, has successfully implemented its requirement in a way that has boosted vaccinations and prevented disruptions to operations.”

Still, companies mandating vaccines have faced protests or lawsuits. In some states, lawsuits have been filed to impede this. For example, Disney suspended a mandate for employees of Disney World in Florida after it became illegal for employers in the state to require employees to get the shot.

The panic and precautions associated with COVID-19 have played out in stores during the pandemic, ensnaring their employees.

First, there was the gap between essential and non-essential businesses, which led chains like Guitar Center and Dillard’s to claim they should stay open — and let their employees come in — despite the worsening public health crisis. Workers have been at the forefront of disputes over mask mandates and then mask enforcement. Chain stores such as REI have been criticized for failing to inform employees about COVID cases in stores. Grocery store workers in many states were not given priority access to vaccines.

“We’ve seen self-service messages during the pandemic from employers putting profitability above the health and safety of their own employees,” Appelbaum said. “They have a misguided idea that taking certain actions is better for profit.”

Business has skyrocketed for some of the largest retailers, such as Target and Walmart, during the pandemic. And while they still face rising prices and supply chain pressures, executives have recently indicated that workforce pressures have eased.

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

Retailers are betting that consumers will be comfortable shopping in stores, where pedestrian traffic is already higher than in 2020, regardless of the industry’s efforts to combat the new vaccination and testing requirements. And for those concerned about the lack of vaccinations, the companies have strengthened their e-commerce operations and strengthened their street-side takeout offerings over the past year, although in-store shopping often leads to more purchases and fewer returns.

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

Last week, a number of health groups and experts, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, issued a statement urging companies to move forward with the Labor Department’s rules.

“The hope was to give business leaders some perspective to remind them that 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. Jha said it is important for companies across all sectors to follow the rule, noting that retailers play a special role given the nature of their workforce. He said those measures should be taken during the holiday season — not after — especially as cases are expected to rise.

“Do they really want to be super-distributed places during the holiday season and be responsible for their employees getting sick and for their employees to spread it to customers?” said Jha.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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