Corporations Pursue Distinct Strategies on Vaccinating Workforce

Business leaders broadly agree they need to get more workers vaccinated to keep the U.S. economy humming in the face of the fast-spreading Delta variant. But they’re split over how best to do that.

In recent days, companies from Arkansas-based Walmart to Microsoft Corp. have imposed vaccine mandates mostly on white-collar workers returning to offices. Meatpacker Tyson Foods Inc. took a harder line, saying all its workers must get the vaccine by Nov. 1.

“We did not take this decision lightly,” Donnie King, Tyson’s chief executive, wrote in a memo to the company’s roughly 120,000 U.S. employees. “We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated—today, under half of our team members are.”

Both strategies come with risks for employers, their workers and their customers, and both could shape the course of the pandemic.

Contributing to the different strategies are challenges that are sometimes unique to an industry and sometimes universal: customer/client relations, the need to remain fully staffed and operational, a fear of losing employees, a desire to end remote work, unions, and more.

Walmart executives didn’t make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory this spring, but recently, it said it would require vaccines for U.S. corporate staff and regional managers. It isn’t mandating the shots for store workers.

Walmart’s vaccination rate is slightly higher than the national average, according to people familiar with the matter. However, with 1.6 million U.S. employees, that means hundreds of thousands of cashiers, truck drivers, warehouse loaders and other frontline staff likely have not gotten the vaccine.

Walmart is offering a $150 bonus to employees who get the shot.

Some U.S. airlines are requiring vaccines for new hires but not existing staff. Manufacturing giants such as General Electric Co. , Caterpillar Inc. and the big three U.S. automakers have said they aren’t mandating vaccines.

Snap-on Inc., a Wisconsin-based high-end tools manufacturer with a largely blue-collar workforce, won’t mandate the vaccine, says Chief Executive Nicholas T. Pinchuk, because he believes such a move would backfire.

“I don’t think the way to do it is to tell people, somehow because they don’t get the vaccine, they are flawed,” Pinchuk said. “They don’t respond to that.”

He instead talks up the benefits of the vaccine. The company has offered employees time off to get the shot. Snap-on’s overall vaccination rate is above the national average, said Pinchuk, with more factory workers than corporate staff having received the vaccine.

Companies mandating vaccinations for workers represented by labor unions, such as Tyson, must negotiate those requirements. About 36,000 Tyson employees, or a quarter of its workforce, are unionized or covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Labor union leaders have sent mixed messages on vaccine requirements. Some have insisted such changes be reached only through collective bargaining, while others have come out publicly in support.

General Motors Co. and its rivals have decided to reinstate mask wearing across their workforces after discussions with a joint task force of the United Auto Workers union. A UAW spokesman said a vaccine mandate would be subject to negotiations with union officials. He said the union has encouraged workers to get vaccinated.

U.S. employers can require all workers physically present in a workplace be vaccinated against Covid-19, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said earlier this year.

Most companies say they will allow for health and religious exemptions, and some are still determining how they will respond to workers who do not comply.

A Tyson spokesman said the company will continue to educate its employees about vaccinations, address their concerns, and will consider requests for exemptions on medical and religious grounds, but that vaccinations are a condition of employment.

At steelmaker Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., CEO Lourenco Goncalves started an incentive program at the start of July with the goal of getting at least three-fourths of the roughly 25,000 employees vaccinated. Workers will receive $1,500 bonuses if at least 75 percent of the employees at their work sites receive the vaccine. For sites where at least 85 percent of coworkers receive the vaccine, the bonus increases to $3,000.

So far, just under 50 percent of all employees have been vaccinated, up from 35 percent when the program started last month.

Goncalves said he isn’t mandating the vaccine because he doesn’t need every employee to get a vaccination to reach a level that will lower chances of outbreaks at worksites.

Source: Wall Street Journal