Employers, business leaders and policymakers in Washington state had mixed reactions — and a lot of questions — Thursday after the Biden administration ordered companies with 100 or more employees to require workers to get vaccinated or be tested weekly.
Gov. Jay Inslee applauded Biden’s order as a “big step” toward tamping down on the pandemic. “We think it’s the right decision,” Inslee said during a Thursday news conference.
But some business leaders warned that any mandate could mean additional risks for employers that are already short-staffed and might now see more departures from vaccine-skeptical workers.
“We will not have 100% support of a vaccination mandate,” warned Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of the 365-member Washington Food Industry Association. “We are deeply concerned about how this will impact the supply chain that is already struggling.”
Fears of mandate backlash have also surfaced among state workers following Inslee’s mandate that state workers and school employees be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs.
Employers in other sectors are also worried. Washington’s largest private employer, Seattle-based Amazon, hasn’t imposed an employee vaccine mandate — reportedly because the online retailer fears a mandate could spur a mass exodus among its hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers, many of whom are skeptical of coronavirus vaccines.
Amazon did not respond to questions about whether it planned to require its workers to get vaccinated.
But some legal experts say the order, rather than causing an exodus, could actually make it easier for employers that wanted to impose a vaccine mandate but were fearful of employee pushback.
“I think you’re seeing an administration take a step to provide ‘cover’ to those employers who are already [mandating vaccines], or thinking about doing it and who have been hesitant to do it so far,” said Jason Rittereiser, an attorney and expert in coronavirus-related workplace regulations at HKM Employment Attorneys in Seattle.
Under state and federal law, employers can require employees to be vaccinated as long as they allow exemptions for health or religious reasons, said Rittereiser.
Still, exactly how and when the mandate will be implemented or enforced has yet to be detailed by the U.S. Labor Department, which must now translate Biden’s order into actual policy.
According to media reports, over the next month or so, the Labor Department will issue an emergency temporary rule detailing the requirements under the mandate, which the White House estimates will affect 80 million workers at private companies, with fines of up to $14,000 per violation for firms that fail to comply.
Until then, however, some employers are unsure how to proceed. “There’s a lot of nuance in the application of these mandates,” Rittereiser said. “The overarching message is pretty darn clear, [but] how the government gets there, how employers get there, is where the nuance is.”
Indeed, as of late Thursday, many Seattle-area employers seemed still to be trying to assess the mandate’s specific effects.
Alaska Airlines, which has been reluctant to impose employee vaccination mandates, even as employees have contracted COVID-19 and some passengers have rebelled against wearing masks during flights, said it was still assessing the Biden order.
“We are currently reviewing this latest guidance and will make adjustments to our existing COVID safety plans as needed to ensure we are operating in accordance with government guidelines,” the company said Thursday in a statement.
And many large employers in Washington did not respond to questions from The Seattle Times about their response to the mandate, among them Nordstrom and T-Mobile. A Starbucks spokesperson said the company had “nothing yet” to say about the mandate.
Similar uncertainty surrounds plans, still in development, by King County to require vaccine verification for some nonessential indoor businesses and venues.
“We don’t know for sure which member businesses will be impacted, nor do we know how this program will be enforced,” said Rachel Smith, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which has proposed working with the county on technical assistance and outreach to companies implementing the requirement.
In the meantime, some employers seemed resigned to the mandate despite some misgivings.
Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell agrees that the mandate is necessary and that it probably also “makes it a little easier” to ensure that his staff is fully vaccinated. But Stowell, who estimates 90% of his roughly 350 employees are vaccinated, expects pushback nonetheless.
And given the ongoing challenges in finding enough staff, Stowell worries about the mandate’s effects on hiring or turnover, or about having to making staff decisions based on someone’s personal views.
“We’ll definitely get complaints,” he said.
Seattle Times reporters Joseph O’Sullivan, Katherine Anne Long and Akash Pasricha contributed to this story.