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Nike Requires Return-to-Work Vaccines as Biden Urges Corporate Mandates

When it comes to Covid-19 vaccination, Nike wants its workforce to “Just Do It.”

The Oregon company made full vaccination a non-negotiable for employees returning to work Jan. 10. “Supporting the effort to bring people safely back to their workplaces in January, we will require all office-based employees in the U.S. to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19,” Nike told Sourcing Journal. Retailers like Walmart, TJX, Under Armour and Saks have announced similar office reopening plans.

“As we all know, the pandemic is not over, and the Delta variant has led to an increase in infection rates across much of the U.S,” Walmart stated in late July. “Given this, we have made the decision to require all market, regional and divisional associates who work in multiple facilities and all campus office associates to be vaccinated by Oct. 4, unless they have an approved exception.”

Saks solidified its stance earlier than most, announcing in May—as all U.S. residents became eligible for the vaccine—that it would require nearly 500 New York corporate office employees to get the jab in order to return to work this September. TJX is requiring all office associates to get their doses of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson by Nov. 4, while Baltimore-based Under Armour is pushing a Dec. 31 deadline for employees slated to return to the office in January.

As brands form their return-to-work plans, the Biden administration has been working to make inoculation against Covid-19 mandatory for private-sector businesses. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers with 100 or more staff to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated—or that unvaccinated workers produce a negative test result on a weekly basis before entering their facilities.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden discussed the importance of vaccination mandates with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby and other corporate executives. The president cited new data showing that the Department of Defense’s mandate increased vaccinations of active duty forces from 67 percent to 97 percent as of this week, while United Airlines’ order resulted in 99 percent of all workers now being fully inoculated, up from 59 percent two months prior. Biden said he met with the CEOs of Disney, Microsoft and Walgreens to discuss their strategies as well.

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Companies that opt into such mandates are “setting a powerful example” for the rest of the country, Biden said. Government data “shows that vaccination requirements are good for the economy—not only in increasing vaccination rates, but to help send people back to work.”

“My message is require your employees to get vaccinated,” Biden said, describing vaccines as the only way to overcome the pandemic and its economic impact. “Without them, we face endless months of chaos in our hospitals, damage to our economy and anxiety in our schools and empty restaurants, and much less commerce.”

But while the president continues his pro-vaccine tour, some retail players aren’t making anti-covid shots mandatory. While Amazon reportedly encourages its employees to get vaccinated—even going as far as to stage a $100,000 “Max Your Vax” sweepstakes in August for frontline workers, according to CNBC—sources close to the company said the e-commerce giant is concerned that making vaccination compulsory could alienate workers ahead of retail’s busiest season. Amazon declined Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported in September that neither Macy’s or Abercrombie planned to implement vaccine requirements for employees. Neither company responded to a request for comment by the press time.

The issue, however, isn’t necessarily straightforward. “[T]here are a lot of different variables that come into play” for companies considering vaccine mandates,” said Dr. Michael Urban, senior lecturer and director of the Doctorate of Occupational Therapy program at the University of New Haven.

While requiring vaccination might seem like a simple ask, companies are likely weighing the impact of wading into what has now become a politically and ideologically charged debate—especially amid the ‘Great Resignation,’ he said. Four million Americans quit their jobs in June alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) August survey of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers revealed that 65 percent are looking for new jobs. Of the 752 executives PwC also questioned, 88 percent noted higher turnover than normal.

“If you’re not in the healthcare field and serving patients who are at risk, but instead you’re an office where people work in cubicles and have minimal interactions,” some executives might deem requiring vaccination unnecessary, Urban said. Some of the decision-making comes down to business type; if staff work outdoors, in mostly empty offices, or are largely working from home, companies might not be in a hurry to act, he said.

Companies in the largely anti-vaccine South are more likely to mirror their constituents’ sentiments, while businesses located in states functioning well under mask mandates and social distancing guidelines might also stop short of issuing company-wide rulings.

Employers in Florida might hesitate to require vaccines given the state’s political leanings. “The state has seen surges time and time again because there isn’t an emphasis on [being] vaccinated,” he said. “But employers are fearful of imposing this mandate because they’re afraid of people leaving and being short-staffed.”

Those concerns shouldn’t necessarily prevent employers from pushing for full workforce vaccination, however. There are plenty of employees who want to retain their jobs, and are eager to return to the social atmosphere of the office and resume their pre-pandemic routines. What’s more, Urban said, employees are not required to disclose vaccination status to each other, which will likely lead to some awkward or tense encounters should different rules and freedoms apply.

Whether a company is small or large, Urban believes the logistics of imposing a vaccine mandate should not be prohibitive. HR departments should regularly survey employees about whether they are vaccinated—as well as their sentiments surrounding the issue—as a means of developing their strategies. They can work with those who are affected by medical and religious exemptions on a person-by-person basis, as those parties are protected by federal law.

“Employers should be talking to their employees and saying, ‘Hey this what we’re considering,’ and having sort of an open dialogue,” he said.