Companies across America – from Amazon and Uber to railroads and meatpacking plants – are lobbying states and the federal government to prioritize their workers for early immunization against the coronavirus amid limited supplies of the vaccine.
After front-line health-care workers and elderly people in nursing homes and assisted-living centers are immunized, the government within two months or so is expected to begin shipping vaccine to communities across America for those it has designated as essential workers.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine advisory group voted Sunday to recommend that grocery store workers, teachers, day-care staffers, adults over 75 and other front-line workers who cannot work remotely should be the next to get the coronavirus vaccine, followed later by another large batch of essential workers and elderly people. The recommendations guide state authorities in deciding who should have priority to receive limited doses of vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
The two groups of essential workers that the government is prioritizing comprises 87 million people, spanning dozens of industries and including many people of color and many earning low wages. And the task of setting the sequence of vaccinations within that sprawling, disparate population, verifying who is essential, and setting up equitable systems for access is triggering competition. The government’s list is so broad that it weather forecasters and operators of shooting ranges.
Adding to the uncertainty for business leaders is a patchwork process for emergency planning: All 50 states have the power to set their own priorities.
What is clear is that there won’t be enough doses to go around for months. Local officials in each state will have to make tough choices about which essential workers get their shots first.
“It almost feels like a wrestling match out there, where many interests want to make it clear that the people they represent have a lot of essential workers,” said Jonathan Slotkin, chief medical officer of Contigo Health, which leads partnerships between large, national employers and hospital systems. Companies are displaying a “voracious appetite” for vaccines for their workforces, he said.
Police, firefighters, public transit workers and teachers will be at the top of most state lists. But lower down the line, states have divergent views on who should get shots to reduce infections and get local economies back up and running.
Once the vaccine does begin to flow to essential workers, states will be working from the government’s master list of industry categories. State officials have said they will follow these guidelines for the most part, but they are not required to.
Some advocates and policy experts fear the competition for vaccines will favor the wealthiest companies with the strongest lobbying teams in state capitals. That could disadvantage smaller firms.
Individual gig workers who deliver food and vital supplies to households, but who are not as organized, also could get left out of the planning and off vaccination lists, advocates said.
Many delivery drivers are people of color. Members of minority groups are more prone to die of covid-19 because of historical disparities in health care. They also have been shown in polls to place less trust in vaccines because of those disparities, as well as unethical medical experiments on Black people.
“They are in fact bearing an enormous risk, the ones who are delivering to our homes,” said Dania Rajendra, who leads Athena, a coalition of social justice and labor groups that advocates on behalf of workers at Amazon from outside the company, which has 800,000 employees in the United States.
But large employers may be able to improve their place in line by helping embattled state governments, which have been starved of federal financial support to organize vaccination efforts. Companies are offering vaccination sites, logistical help and the ability to identify which workers qualify as essential.
The ride service companies Uber and Lyft, which consider their drivers independent contractors, not employees, are making their size and organization a key part of the appeal for prioritization.
“We believe Lyft can play a significant role in increasing access to the vaccine,” Lyft spokeswoman Julie Wood said. In a letter to all 50 state governors, Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said of the company’s drivers, “I want to ensure these individuals can receive immunizations quickly, easily and free, and I offer Uber’s assistance to you in making that a reality.”
Drivers themselves are eager to be prioritized. Aziz Bah, who drives for Lyft and Uber in New York and is an organizer for the Independent Drivers Guild, a labor union for drivers, said as ride-share drivers returned to work over the summer, they drove front-line medical workers to hospitals, allowing those workers to avoid mass transit.
“We are actually the front line to those front-line people because they rely on us to get to work,” he said.
The dilemmas are especially stark in lightly populated states like North Dakota, where nearly 60 percent of the population meets a federal classification for essential workers. Stephen Pickard, a former epidemiology field officer for the CDC in North Dakota who has been moderating the state’s vaccination ethics committee, said his email inbox is filling up with requests from organizations seeking to beat one another out for priority. Among them were messages from a railroad company and group homes for the disabled.
A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation this month found that 30 states were still developing their plans on how to prioritize vaccine after the front-line health care workers and elderly in residential facilities.
“It’s going to get a lot messier,” said Jennifer Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at KFF. “That’s a huge group of people and choices will have to be made.”
Amazon, whose founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, was among the many companies that lobbied to be placed on a master list of essential workers compiled by a division of the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year.
Initially, that list was used to decide what workers could be exempt from lockdown orders as governors and mayors ordered the general public to remain indoors and work from home. Now the list is being used to allocate scarce vaccines, a much more difficult proposition.
The company sent a letter Wednesday to the CDC’s vaccine advisory panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, asking that its workers be placed in line “at the earliest appropriate time.”
In response to a question from The Post, Amazon said it would be also be asking state officials to prioritize delivery drivers and contract workers.
“Our view is that our essential workers and those that work outside the house for us at fulfillment centers and Whole Foods stores and as delivery drivers are all part of that essential supply chain that helps tens of millions of other people stay home,” Steve Hartell, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said in an interview.
Warehouse Workers for Justice, a Chicago-based rights group that is often critical of Amazon’s labor practices, is calling on public officials to give priority to warehouse workers like those at Amazon. The group said warehousing and manufacturing sites account for the second-largest concentration of covid-19 infections in Illinois behind long-term care facilities, but outpacing restaurants, bars, schools and social gatherings. About 85 percent of the state’s 650,000 temporary workers, the group said, are Black and Hispanic.
“We believe there is a correlation to high infections in these workplaces that then spread to Black and brown communities,” Tommy Carden, an organizer for the group, said in a statement. “If we want to address covid-19 transmission in these communities, we need to vaccinate where people work, which includes the temp workers.”
Officials in Midwestern and Great Plains states said they were being lobbied especially hard by railway companies and other transit groups. A spokeswoman for the BNSF Railway Company, the largest freight railroad network in North America, said the company was working with allies in the transportation industry to ensure early access to the vaccine for its employees.
A collection of organizations representing freight, rail, port and waterway infrastructure sent a letter this month to the top members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, noting the sacrifices of these workers, who are unable to work from home, while also warning of their critical role in the “continued viability of our domestic supply chain.”
A health official in Texas, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal communications, said the state is being lobbied by groups that “run the gamut,” from dentists and optometrists to federal judges and power plant workers.
Corrections officers are seeking priority, the person said, as are convenience store employees. The rice industry is making a pitch for agriculture workers. Someone associated with Southwest Airlines had recently reached out seeking clarity about the place of airline workers. And private schoolteachers were pushing to make sure they were classed together with public employees.
Among finance sector workers, the American Bankers Association is urging the government to prioritize bank tellers and managers who interact with the public.
Floor traders at the New York Stock Exchange, who mingle in the common space, are likely to receive some later level of prioritization, but they want to be sure higher-priority workers facing greater infection risks go first, said Philip Quartuccio, managing director and head of global trading, for investment firm ThinkEquity.
“There’s 500 to 1,000 people on the floor of the exchange,” he said. “I suspect they will be in line at some point before the general population.”
NYSE President Stacey Cunningham said on CNBC on Dec. 11 that financial workers are prepared to wait their turn: “We’re not looking to jump any queue with respect to vaccines.”
After spending months over the spring and summer trying to justify essential worker designations that allowed factory workers to go back on the job, manufacturing industry trade groups say most states now recognize their workforce for priority vaccinations.
“Phase 1B, which includes the term ‘essential workers,’ is a fairly broad bucket,” Robyn Boerstling, the National Association of Manufacturers’ vice president of infrastructure, innovation and human resources, said in an interview. “And we just really wanted to make sure that governors really had the tools and awareness that manufacturing is an essential industry.”
But manufacturers in some states are bracing for a longer wait before their workers receive the injections. Pennsylvania includes the “critical manufacturing” sector in its Phase 1B, but industry representatives there say the state’s playbook is not clear which subsectors that will cover.
“We’re in limbo,” Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association President David N. Taylor said. “And I hope that there’s a recognition of the critical role that manufacturing plays in standing up the rest of the economy.”
Michigan, home base for the auto industry, is still wrestling with the question of where to prioritize manufacturing. Ford announced in November that it ordered a dozen ultracold freezers to store coronavirus vaccines for its workforce – among the most aggressive responses by any company. But the automaker said it didn’t actually know when those freezers would be filled.
The freezers, said Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker, were part of the company’s early effort to explore “how best to provide a vaccination program to our employees, which will vary among our global locations.”
“Our initial emphasis is on essential workers at our manufacturing plants, warehouses, workplace-dependent employees and employees who are required to travel,” Felker said in a statement.
The scramble is twofold for many of the country’s supermarket and grocery chains, which are racing to sign agreements with the federal government to distribute coronavirus vaccines to the public, while also lobbying for their front-line employees to be given priority for those vaccines.
Grocery, warehouse and supply chain workers have been hit hard by covid-19-related deaths and infections during the pandemic. They have risked exposure for as little as a temporary pay bump of $2 an hour and “bonuses” that are disproportionate to the record profits their companies have raked in during the public health crisis. Many food and retail workers do not receive paid sick leave or health insurance.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million employees at chains such as Kroger and Albertsons, is urging the CDC to vaccinate grocery, meatpacking and food processing workers “immediately after health-care workers.”
At least 350 of its members – including 109 grocery employees and 128 meatpacking workers – have died and thousands have been infected by the virus since March, according to the union.
Mark Lauritsen, director of the UFCW’s food processing and meat packing division, toured a Smithfield Foods meat-processing facility in Denison, Iowa, on Tuesday. The plant is the largest employer in Denison, he said, and almost all of the town’s 8,400 residents are connected to it in some way.
“Food supply chain workers didn’t have the luxury of working from home for three months,” Lauritsen said.
“You have to remember what our members went through in March, April and May. It was as deadly as anything in the meatpacking industry’s history,” he said. “Thousands were sick, hundreds died. Members saw their co-workers getting sick.”
Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, is preparing to distribute the vaccines to employees and customers. It is adding freezers and supplying dry ice to its 5,000 pharmacies to make sure they can properly store doses once they arrive, Tom Van Gilder, the company’s chief medical officer, said in a statement.
But, Van Gilder stressed, the company “will not have any say in who can receive the vaccine.” It will defer to states to determine when customers and employees are eligible, he said. Company representatives did not respond to questions about whether Walmart was pushing state and federal officials to give their workers priority.
A blueprint for survival by the National Restaurant Association calls for their prioritizing testing and vaccine distribution for food supply chain employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ November employment report showed that restaurants and bars lost 17,400 jobs last month and are still down over 2.1 million jobs since the start of the pandemic, far more than any other industry.
Nabeel Alamgir, chief executive of digital ordering start-up Lunchbox, says the government recognizes the health value of ghost kitchens – eateries designed for meal delivery only, without dining rooms. They keep people from congregating in restaurants. But the chefs and drivers need to be vaccinated, he said.
“People who work in ghost kitchens and food delivery are in so much contact with people, traveling from building to building,” Alamgir said. “They come to our doorstep and into our homes.”
Some business are not obviously essential to providing basic goods, emergency services, or heat and light, but are essential to the functioning of local economies. Tourism is a prime example. It is not on the government’s list of essential operations, but in Florida, interest is especially keen in a return to normal to restore jobs and tourist revenue.
Two lobbyists in Florida, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment based on private conversations, said they expect the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association to push for hotels in particular and said Disney would also exert significant influence.
“They are the Supernova in Tallahassee,” one of the lobbyists said, referring to the Orlando branch of the entertainment complex.
A third lobbyist, who specializes in tourism clients and is close to Disney in Florida, said the company was taking more of a “wait and see” approach, seeking clarity from the state about its plans. A spokeswoman for Disney’s theme park division, Stephanie Corzett, declined to comment.
The theme-park industry has been pummeled by the coronavirus. Disney, the country’s largest operator, lost more than $3 billion from April through September in its typically highly profitable parks division. California’s Disneyland has remained closed through the nine months of the pandemic, while Florida attractions have been open only since the summer, at reduced capacity.
“Vaccines would certainly help Disney with hiring or rehiring – a lot of their cast members are worried about covid and they need to be able to get all their top people back,” said Scott Smith, who teaches hospitality management at the University of South Carolina. “But I don’t see it making much of a difference to their traffic. The biggest reasons people aren’t coming to the parks is because they’re scared of getting covid from other guests, or because they’re cutting back in a recession.”
Smith said that given the financial stakes he believed there would be little backlash if the workers were vaccinated early.
“Unless there’s a real elbowing to the front of the line, I don’t think you would hear more than mild grumbling,” he said. “People in Central Florida understand what Disney means to the economy.”
Ashley Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the group has “not specifically sought prioritization of our industry members in Florida as we know the focus right now is on those most vulnerable at at-risk for exposure, including health-care workers and our large senior population.”
One of the Florida lobbyists also said he expected athletic teams to seek special treatment, having seen the National Basketball Association establish a protective bubble to prevent infection in Florida for the end of its regular season and playoffs. Entertainment had considerable purchase in early decision-making about essential infrastructure, when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis justified his decision to give World Wrestling Entertainment that classification by saying people were “starved for content.”
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The Washington Post’s Todd Frankel, Faiz Siddiqui, Steven Zeitchik and Will Englund contributed to this report.