The holiday shopping season has arrived, and retailers are starting to dial it in by doing everything from slashing prices to stocking showrooms to attract customers who stayed home last year. The biggest thing they don’t do is the one thing the White House and many public health experts have asked them to do: force their workers to be vaccinated.
As other industries with workers in public facing roles, such as airlines and hospitals, have moved toward ordering vaccines, retailers have dug in their heels, citing concerns about a labor shortage. And part of one of the country’s largest workforce will remain vulnerable, just as shoppers are expected to flock to stores.
At the heart of the retailers’ resistance is the concern about having enough people to work. In a tight job market, retailers have been offering perks such as higher wages and better working hours to potential employees in hopes of getting enough people to staff their stores and distribution centers. The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, estimated that retailers will employ up to 665,000 seasonal workers this year.
Macy’s, for example, said it plans to hire 76,000 full- and part-time employees this season. The retailer offered referral bonuses of up to $500 for each friend or relative that employees recruit to join. Macy’s asked company employees this fall to vaccinate or test negative for Covid-19 to enter its offices. But store workers are a different story.
“We have a lot of stores that have a lot of openings, and any judgment that we have to require these colleagues to be vaccinated before Christmas is only going to exacerbate our labor shortage at a really critical period for us,” Jeff Jennett, Macy’s CEO, said in an interview.
The industry showed how strong it is on the issue this month when the Biden administration directed companies with 100 or more workers to mandate weekly vaccinations or tests by Jan. Five days after that announcement, the National Retail Federation filed a lawsuit to stop the effort.
“We all agree with the premise that vaccines are good and that vaccines save lives,” Stephanie Martz, NRF’s chief administrative officer, said in an interview Monday.
“But by the same token, you can’t just say, ‘Okay, do it. “
Now suspended in a lawsuit, the order has been challenged by a number of lawsuits from a broad coalition of opponents, and could make its way to the Supreme Court. Court filings by the administration warn that blocking the base “is likely to cost tens or even hundreds of lives a day.”
Jennett, who sits on the union’s board of directors, said Macy’s “would love to see” demand placed in the first quarter, which typically begins in February, for the industry. This echoes the union, which has said it wants the deadline to be pushed back several months.
“I’m in favor of it – I’d just like to have it on a schedule that works for us,” said Mr. Jennett. “We need more time.”
Many health experts say staff mandates are the only way to help the country emerge from the pandemic, as the spread of misinformation and the politicization of the coronavirus have helped suppress vaccination rates. The vaccination rate for those 12 and older in the United States is about 69 percent, with rates in some pockets of the country as low as 40 percent. The average daily case reports have increased more than 20 percent over the past two weeks.
“It’s a pretty big question, nobody’s denying it,” said Crystal Watson, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, of ordering vaccinations for retail employees. “But we’ve also tried a lot of other things to help people get vaccinated – and I think the mandate now is what we need to get past that barrier.”
Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, declined to comment on the union’s lawsuit or plans for vaccinations or testing. A spokeswoman for Target said the company “began to take the necessary steps to meet the requirements of the new Covid-19 rules for large companies as soon as the details were announced.”
Spokespeople for several retailers on the union’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 object to, and therefore use the NRF as cover,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Supermarket Federation.
He added, “If you had the option of going to the workplace, or going to a store as a customer and saying, ‘All of our employees have been vaccinated or tested,’ or another store saying, ‘We have no idea who has been vaccinated or tested,’ whichever you choose. And that’s why, let’s say, Acme Department Store doesn’t want to advertise that it’s promoting bad public policy.”
Many employers in industries, such as retail, who have mandated vaccines in corporate offices that they did not require from frontline workers, share their concerns about employment challenges. But these workers, including about four million in stores, are among the most vulnerable. They interact more frequently with the public and are less likely to vaccinate themselves. States at Tyson, United Airlines, and many health care companies report that when faced with the prospect of losing their jobs, employees often choose to be vaccinated.
“We know the vaccine requirements are working,” said Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesman. “The federal government, the largest employer in the country, has successfully implemented its requirements in a way that boosted vaccinations and avoided any disruptions to operations.”
The status of vaccine mandates in the United States
An increasing number of employers, universities and companies are now issuing some form of vaccine requirement. Here is a closer look.
However, companies that mandate the issuance of vaccines have faced protests or lawsuits. In some states, legislation has been passed to block this. Disney, for example, temporarily suspended an authorization for employees at Disney World in Florida after it became illegal for employers in the state to require workers to take a photo.
The panic and precautions associated with Covid-19 in retail stores have spread throughout the pandemic and trapped their workers.
First, there has been a gap between core and non-core businesses, leading chains like Guitar Center and Dillard’s to say they need to stay open — and keep their employees engaged — despite the worsening public health crisis. Workers have been at the forefront of disputes over mask mandates and thus conceal enforcement. Retail chains such as REI have come under fire for failing to inform employees of Covid issues in stores. Grocery store workers have not been given priority access to vaccinations in many states.
“We have seen, throughout the pandemic, self-service messages from employers who place profitability above the health and safety of their employees,” said Mr. Appelbaum. “They have a misguided idea that it is better for profits to take certain actions.”
Business has boomed for some of the biggest retailers, such as Target and Walmart, throughout the pandemic. And while they still face price hikes and supply chain pressures, executives recently indicated that the pressure on hiring has waned.
“We feel really good about our staff entering the holiday season,” Target CEO Brian Cornell told CNBC last week. He added that the company’s retention numbers were “some of the strongest in our history,” which he attributed to franchises and safety measures.
Retailers are betting that consumers will be comfortable shopping in stores, where foot traffic is already higher than it was in 2020, regardless of industry efforts to combat new vaccination and testing requirements. And for those concerned about vaccine shortages, companies ramped up e-commerce and curbside pickup offerings in the past year, even though in-store shopping often leads to more purchases and lower revenue.
When asked what Macy’s would tell customers interested in shopping in stores, Mr. Jennette said: “What I would say is that we encourage every single one of our colleagues to get vaccinated and every fellow who wears a mask in our stores and warehouses to protect themselves and others.”
Last week, a number of health groups and experts, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, issued a statement asking companies to move forward with Department of Labor rules.
Dr Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, who was one of the signatories: “The hope was to provide some perspective to business leaders to remind them that this is not a political issue.” Dr Jha said it was important for companies in all industries to follow the rule, noting that retailers play a certain role, given the nature of their employee base. He said that these measures should be taken during the holiday season – not after it – especially since this is the time when case numbers are expected to rise.
“Do they really want to be super popular during the holiday season and be responsible for their employees getting sick and for their employees spreading it to customers?” Dr Jha said.