Tyson Foods announced Tuesday that it will require its 120,000 U.S. workers to be vaccinated by November, making it the largest food company to mandate vaccinations in an industry beleaguered by coronavirus outbreaks.
The recent surge of the delta variant has left companies scrambling to adapt to a shifting landscape of mask and vaccination requirements. Until now, the list of U.S. companies requiring broader vaccine mandates has been dominated by tech giants and white-collar firms like Google, Facebook, Uber and Morgan Stanley. Walt Disney Co. announced a mandate last week, but it only applies to its salaried and nonunion hourly workers.
Even Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, is requiring vaccinations for its corporate employees, but officials stopped short of mandating vaccinations for hourly workers at stores.
But Tyson’s sweeping mandate marks a shift in how some companies with employees who work in proximity to one another may be reconsidering their role in preventing the spread of the virus.
“Getting vaccinated against covid-19 is the single most effective thing we can do to protect our team members, their families and their communities,” Claudia Coplein, Tyson’s chief medical officer, said in a statement. “With rapidly rising covid-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the U.S. unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce.”
Mandates from companies like Tyson — whose employees work in conditions more conducive to virus spread — are more likely to have an impact on nationwide vaccination rates, according to Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia Business School.
“From a public health perspective, for these types of mandates to really move the needle on public health, they need to apply to employee groups who would otherwise not get vaccinated,” Boudreau said. “If we start to see companies like Walmart or Amazon adopt mandates for their warehouse or retail staff, that would be a big change.”
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 250,000 meatpacking and food processing employees, including 24,000 at Tyson, says it has “serious concerns” about the new vaccine mandate. It is urging businesses to negotiate new policies with its front line workers and to provide paid leave so workers can get vaccinated without having to worry about missing work.
Union President Marc Perrone said, "We’ll be meeting with Tyson in the coming weeks to discuss this vaccine mandate and to ensure that the rights of these workers are protected, and this policy is fairly implemented.”
So far, companies have treaded cautiously, corporate experts say, fearing worker backlash and difficulty attracting employees in an already tight labor market. But as the delta variant of the coronavirus sweeps the nation and spurs more infections, hospitalizations and deaths, more vaccine mandates could follow.
“Large companies are realizing that if they’re waiting on a green light or blueprint from the government to mandate vaccines, they’re going to be waiting a long time,” said Chris Allieri, a crisis management expert and founder of Mulberry & Astor, a public relations firm in New York. “This is a massive public health — and economic and societal — crisis we’re in and it’s never going to go away without some sort of vaccine mandate.”
Challenges are particularly acute for corporations with operations in multiple states juggling public health rules and case rates that differ wildly from one place to another. This has left some to pursue alternatives as a way of getting employees vaccinated: Retailers like Walmart and Dollar General are promising extra pay and cash bonuses to inoculated workers, while other firms are limiting access to office gyms, cafeterias, shuttles and free lunches to vaccinated employees.
On Tuesday, Microsoft joined the list of tech giants and other companies in revising their plans to bring workers back to the office. The company — which expects to fully open its offices Oct. 4 — will now require workers to prove they’ve been vaccinated, after previously saying it would not do so. Microsoft will also require vaccination proof for its vendors and any guests entering Microsoft’s buildings in the United States, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer Chris Capossela said in a statement.
Less than 30 percent of U.S. workers are under vaccine mandates from their employers, according to June research from the Society for Human Resource Management, but more than 60 percent of workers said they would support their employers in such requirements.
But barriers remain for employers that want to enact mandates, said Elissa Jessup, an HR adviser with SHRM. Labor market concerns loom large amid a nationwide worker shortage, and some companies may be hesitant to take actions that could turn workers off.
“Employees may be willing to lose their job or quit instead of getting a vaccine if mandated by their employer. Alternatively, if an employer doesn’t mandate the vaccine, this may cause worry and concern for other employees who work with unvaccinated co-workers and may also quit,” Jessup said. “Employers are concerned because there is already high turnover, and either decision could cost them losing valuable employees.”
The possibility of lawsuits is another deterrent, Jessup said. Several have already sprung up across the country, pushing back against vaccine requirements from a North Carolina sheriff, a Houston hospital and Indiana University, to name a few.
“The main argument in most of the lawsuits is based on the vaccine not being fully FDA approved,” Jessup said. “If mandating the vaccine, employers must also keep in mind accommodations either for disability-related reasons under the Americans With Disabilities Act or religious accommodations under Title VII.”
Meatpackers like Tyson grappled with explosive outbreaks in the early days of the pandemic, as food producers were pressured to keep operations running amid surging cases. At least 334,000 U.S. coronavirus cases have been tied to meatpacking plants, resulting in more than $11 billion in economic damage, according to research from the University of California at Davis, which found that beef- and pork-processing plants more than doubled per capita infection rates in counties that had them.
Jay Greene contributed to this report.