Why retailers are fighting a vaccine mandate before the holidays

The holiday shopping season is here and retailers are calling, doing everything from cutting prices to stocking showrooms to attract customers who stayed home last year. What the biggest of them don’t do is the one thing the White House and many public health experts have asked them to do: demand that their workers be vaccinated.

As other industries with workers in public positions, like airlines and hospitals, have turned to the requirement for vaccines, retailers have hesitated, citing concerns over a labor shortage. And part of one of the country’s largest labor force will not be vaccinated, just as shoppers are expected to flock to stores.

At the heart of the resistance of traders is the worry of having enough people to work. In a tight job market, retailers are offering perks like higher wages and better hours to potential employees in the hope of having enough staff to staff their stores and distribution centers. The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, has estimated that retailers will hire up to 665,000 seasonal workers this year.

Macy’s, for example, has announced plans to hire 76,000 full-time and part-time employees this season. The retailer has offered referral bonuses of up to $ 500 for each friend or relative that employees recruit to join. Macy’s asked company staff this fall to get vaccinated or test negative for Covid-19 to enter its offices. But store workers are another story.

“We have a lot of stores that have a lot of openings, and any decision that we have to force these colleagues to get vaccinated before Christmas will only exacerbate our labor shortage which is entering a really critical time for us. us, “Jeff Gennette, CEO of Macy’s, said in an interview.

The industry showed how comfortable it feels with the issue this month when the Biden administration asked companies with 100 or more employees to require vaccines or weekly tests by January 4. Five days after that announcement, the National Retail Federation sued to stop the effort.

“We all agree with the principle that vaccines are good and vaccines save lives,” said Stephanie Martz, executive director of the NRF on Monday.

“But at the same time, you can’t just say, ‘OK, do it that way.’ “

The order is now on hold in litigation, challenged by a number of lawsuits by a broad coalition of opponents, and could go all the way to the Supreme Court. Administration court records warn that blocking the rule “would likely cost dozens if not hundreds of lives a day.”

Mr. Gennette, who sits on the federation’s board of directors, said Macy’s “would love to see” the order put in place in the first quarter, which typically begins in February for the industry. This echoes the federation, which has indicated that it wants to postpone the deadline by several months.

“I support it – I just wish I had it on a schedule that works for us,” Mr. Gennette said. “We need more time.

Many health experts say employee mandates are the only way to help the country emerge from the pandemic, as widespread disinformation and politicization of the coronavirus has helped suppress vaccination rates. The vaccination rate for ages 12 and older in the United States is around 69 percent, with rates in some pockets of the country as low as 40 percent. The average number of daily case reports has increased by more than 20% over the past two weeks.

“This is a pretty important question, no one is denying it,” Crystal Watson, principal investigator at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said of the vaccination requirement for retail workers. . “But we’ve also tried a lot of other things to help people get vaccinated – and I think a mandate right now is what we need to overcome that hurdle.”

Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, declined to comment on the federation’s lawsuit or plans for vaccination or testing. A spokeswoman for Target said the company had “started taking the necessary steps to meet the requirements of the new Covid-19 rules for large businesses as soon as details were announced.”

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

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

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

Many employers in industries, such as retail, that have mandated vaccines in company offices have not required them for frontline workers, sharing concerns about the difficulty of hiring. But these workers, including about four million in stores, are among the most vulnerable. They frequently interact with the public and are less likely to be vaccinated themselves. Mandates at Tyson, United Airlines and several healthcare companies indicate that faced with the prospect of losing their jobs, employees most often choose immunizations.

“We know the vaccine requirements are working,” White House spokesman Kevin Munoz said. “The federal government, the country’s largest employer, has successfully implemented its requirement in a way that has boosted vaccinations and avoided disruption of operations.”

Yet companies demanding vaccines have faced protests or lawsuits. In some states, legislation has been passed to prevent this. Disney, for example, suspended a warrant for employees at Disney World in Florida after it became illegal for employers in the state to require workers to get vaccinated.

Covid-19 panic and precautions have played out in retail stores throughout the pandemic and have trapped their workers.

First, there was the divide between essential and non-essential businesses, which prompted chains like Guitar Center and Dillard’s to argue that they need to stay open – and keep their employees coming – despite the worsening financial crisis. public health. Workers have been at the forefront of disputes over mask warrants and then the application of masks. Retail chains like REI have come under fire for failing to notify employees of cases of Covid in stores. Grocery store workers have not had priority access to vaccines in many states.

“We have seen, throughout the pandemic, selfish messages from employers who put profitability before the health and safety of their own employees,” said Appelbaum. “They have a misconception that it is better for profits to take certain actions.”

Business has exploded for some of the biggest retailers, like Target and Walmart, throughout the pandemic. And while they still face rising prices and supply chain strain, executives recently indicated that the pressure on staff has eased.

“We are really happy with our staff as the holiday season approaches,” Brian Cornell, Managing Director of Target, told CNBC last week. He added that the company’s retention numbers were “among the highest in our history,” which he attributed to benefits and security measures.

Retailers are betting that consumers will be comfortable shopping in stores, where foot traffic is already higher than in 2020, regardless of the industry’s efforts to fight new demands on the market. vaccination and testing. And for those worried about the lack of vaccinations, companies have stepped up their e-commerce operations and curbside pick-up offerings over the past year, although in-store purchases often result in more purchases and more. less returns.

When asked what Macy’s would say to customers concerned about shopping in stores, Mr. Gennette said, “What I would say is that we encourage each of our coworkers to get vaccinated and each coworker wears a mask in our stores and warehouses to protect yourself and others. . “

Last week, a number of health groups and experts, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, released a statement implore companies to move forward with the rules of the Ministry of Labor.

“The hope was to give business leaders a 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. Dr Jha said it was important for companies across industries to follow the rule, noting that retailers play a special role given the nature of their employee base. He said these measures should be put in place during the holiday season – not afterwards – especially since that is when the number of cases is expected to increase.

“Do they really want to be big-ticket places during the holiday season and be responsible for their employees getting sick and their employees passing it on to customers? Dr Jha said.

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