Businesses walk a fine line to push staff shots

Tyson Foods Inc. leaped into the breach of employer-mandated covid vaccination policy earlier this month when it announced that it would require its entire workforce to get vaccinated by Nov. 1.

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Now, the company appears to be a key test case for businesses across Arkansas and the nation as employers consider the best options to encourage employees to vaccinate among the raging pandemic.

Amid the resurgent coronavirus and its delta variant, businesses are grappling with two main issues: to continue operating, and to implement policies and procedures to protect the health and safety of workers and customers. The challenge is finding the best approach to accomplish both without alienating the workforce.

“Employers are reluctant to mandate anything that’s not absolutely critical to a business’ success,” said Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. “This is a little bit outside the normal range, but we’ve got to remember we’re at war with a bug here. This is like making a wartime decision. This is a global emergency.”

Employers across the nation recognize that “vaccines have had the largest influence on the comfort of employees in the workplace” yet only 11% — led by the health care sector — have imposed mandates for employees or intend to put one in place, according to recent research conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Businesses are experimenting with a mix of incentives — financial payments, gift cards and paid time off — to encourage employees to get vaccinated. For the most part, they’re trying to avoid issuing a mandate to vaccinate.

“Most employers are encouraging rather than requiring vaccinations, and there have been different reasons for that,” said Amber Clayton, knowledge center director for the Society for Human Resource Management, which is a national organization with expertise in human resource issues.

So far, at Tyson, the outcome of its mandatory vaccination policy is not clear. The company announced Aug. 3 that it would require all employees to be vaccinated to retain their jobs, and it was a leader in making the move. United Airlines and AT&T both announced last week that they also will require vaccinations for all employees.

Major hospital systems in Arkansas also notified employees last week that they will require workers to be fully vaccinated against covid. CHI St. Vincent of Little Rock and St. Bernards Healthcare System in Jonesboro announced the mandates Thursday.

One difficulty in making vaccination a condition of employment became apparent just after the St. Vincent announcement — the union representing hospital workers said it would consult with legal counsel to determine if the policy violates the collective bargaining agreement with employees.

“We are currently in consultation with our legal counsel and International (representatives) regarding these changes,” the Office and Professional Employees International Union said in a Facebook posting.

“These changes are a mandatory subject of bargaining,” the union said. “We will be meeting with administration to discuss these changes and how they affect our bargaining unit.”

Tyson’s chief executive officer, Donnie King, updated investors on the company’s vaccination policy while announcing quarterly earnings last week.

“The reaction from our workforce has been somewhat mixed,” King said. “We don’t want to lose anyone. We are putting a lot of effort and energy into education.”

Employers in Arkansas and nationwide are monitoring outcomes at Tyson, and the fear of losing employees and disrupting the workplace is a key factor as they experiment with various incentives.

“Businesses are looking at those reputable, well-known organizations to decide whether to mandate,” Clayton said. “They certainly do look at those organizations, especially larger ones, to see how they’ve handled it.”

COVID SHOT BONUSES

An informal survey of a cross-section of businesses in Arkansas indicates that they are requiring masks and offering incentives for employees to get vaccinated while avoiding mandates to get the shots.

Windstream Holdings Inc., which has 1,140 employees in Arkansas and 11,000 nationwide, is a good example of the approach. The Little Rock communications company offers a $100 bonus to employees who report that they are fully vaccinated.

“Windstream’s position is that vaccination remains our best defense, and while we strongly encourage all employees to get vaccinated, much like we do for the flu, it is not mandatory or a condition of employment at this time,” said Mary Michaels, chief human resources officer.

Walmart Inc. is taking a cautious approach to a mandatory requirement. The retailer is requiring some of its workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 4 as a condition of employment — those who work at the retailer’s Bentonville headquarters and those in management positions who travel within the U.S. are subject to the new rule unless they have an “approved exception,” Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said in a July 30 memo.

McMillon said the company will release more information on the vaccination requirement and the steps employees must take to verify their vaccination status. The vaccination policy does not apply to workers in stores, clubs, transportation offices, and distribution and fulfillment centers, a Walmart spokesman said. However, the company offers a $150 incentive to encourage them to fully vaccinate.

Little Rock steel producer Lexicon Inc. requires employees to mask on the job site and is testing unvaccinated employees for covid.

“Effective immediately, regardless of vaccination status, we will also require all employees to wear masks over their mouths and noses when outside their offices or cubicles,” President and Chief Executive Officer Patrick Schueck told employees in a video message. “Additionally, we are implementing a weekly rapid test requirement for unvaccinated employees who work in or routinely access our offices and work site trailers.”

Along with paid time off, employers such as Simmons First National Corp. and Bank OZK offer vaccinations at on-site clinics.

In Bentonville, the Beef O’Brady’s restaurant has doubled to $200 the incentive for its 35 employees to get vaccinated. Employees have their choice of a Target, Walmart or Amazon gift card.

“This is really a safety issue for us,” said franchise owner Matt Amato. “And a big part of it is about education; if we give people good information, they are more willing to vaccinate.”

VACCINE OPPOSITION

Research indicates employees are not entrenched in their opposition to employers requiring vaccines.

The Society for Human Resource Management found that 63% of employees would support their employer requiring that all employees get vaccinated as a condition of employment. More than half of Arkansans — 52% — feel it should be mandatory for employees to disclose their vaccine status to employers, according to a survey from iprospectcheck, which checks backgrounds of potential employees.

Nevertheless, employers are wary of implementing any policy that would potentially disrupt the workplace and cause workers to quit.

“It’s hard for employers in this environment to impose any new, especially controversial, requirements on their employees,” Zook said. “One of the last things they want to do is irritate employees who have more opportunities available than ever before if they walk out the door. In most communities in the state, you walk out any door and turn right or left and you have multiple job opportunities staring you in the face.”

The Arkansas Commerce Department estimates that there are about 60,000 open jobs in the state.

Retaining employees and hiring for open positions is difficult in today’s environment, according to Amato of Beef O’Brady’s. “That is definitely a factor,” he said. “We have a hard enough time now filling positions and getting people to even respond back once they fill out applications.”

Employer vaccination issues last week became even trickier to navigate when Arkansas lawmakers threatened legislation that would block businesses from requiring vaccinations.

The joint House and Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee approved further consideration of a bill that would bar employers from requiring workers to reveal their vaccination status. In effect, it would prevent mandatory vaccination requirements.

Businesses, Zook said, have enough covid-related complications to steer through, and legislative interference only compounds the issue.

“All businesses want certainty,” Zook said. “Business people are by nature risk-averse. Anything the Legislature is considering might be seen as adding to the risk of a decision about mandates. I think they’re going to be in a wait-and-see situation.”

Information for this article was contributed by Serenah McKay of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.