Covid News: US health worker term limits loom as Omicron overwhelms hospitals

Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

The Supreme Court’s ruling last week ending the Biden administration’s efforts to enlist big employers in its vaccination campaign, experts said, would spark a new wave of uncertainty about how companies are protecting workers. of Covid-19.

Now Starbucks, with 9,000 U.S. cafes and 200,000 workers, has become one of the first major retailers to backtrack on vaccination plans since the ruling.

Starbucks told its employees in a memo on Tuesday that they would no longer be required to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly coronavirus testing. Just two weeks earlier, the company had detailed the requirement and set a February 9 deadline.

The Supreme Court ruling did not prohibit companies from keeping their vaccine rules in place, and many will continue to deploy strict Covid-19 safety protocols, especially as the number of Covid cases remains high. .

Starbucks’ decision to drop its vaccination or testing deadline shows how the court’s decision shifted responsibility for determining vaccination rules to employers. And companies face a patchwork of federal, state and local laws, ranging from stricter vaccination mandates than the federal government to laws preventing companies from requiring workers to wear masks.

“For most employers, this has proven to be a day-to-day crisis because when they think they know the answer, the rules change,” said Domenique Camacho Moran, a labor and employment lawyer at within the law firm Farrell Fritz.

Retailers and their advocates have been among the most vocal critics of the federal government’s vaccine rule, saying it would have exacerbated their struggles to hire or retain workers while millions of unemployed Americans remain on the sidelines of the labor market.

Some labor attorneys say they think other companies will follow Starbucks in easing or rescinding their company’s mandates.

“A lot of companies were pursuing the vaccine or test requirement just because they had to,” said Brett Coburn, attorney at Alston & Bird.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, at the request of President Biden, had issued its temporary so-called emergency standard in November. He told companies with 100 or more workers to require employees to be vaccinated or tested weekly.

John Culver, Starbucks chief operating officer, said in his memo announcing the change in company plans on Tuesday that more than 90% of Starbucks employees in the United States had disclosed their vaccination status and that “the vast majority” were fully vaccinated.

“I want to emphasize that we continue to believe strongly in the spirit and intent of the mandate,” Mr. Culver wrote.

The company’s move comes as it faces a growing effort by its workforce to unionize. Two weeks ago, workers at a unionized Buffalo-area store walked out to protest what they saw as unsafe working conditions. Some said they were appalled to see the vaccine rule scrapped.

Starbucks Workers United, a union that represents two Buffalo-area stores, expressed frustration that the decision was made without their comment.

“Starbucks has canceled its vaccination mandate without discussing the matter or negotiating about it with union partners,” the union said in a statement.

For its part, Starbucks argued that its vaccination requirement was only introduced because of the federal government’s standard, which the Supreme Court later blocked.

“It wasn’t our own independent policy,” said company spokesman Reggie Borges. “We knew OSHA required it, the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled one way or the other and we needed to make sure our partners were supported and prepared to comply.”

Some large employers, including Walmart and Amazon, had delayed issuing blanket vaccine requirements while the OSHA rule was entangled in legal proceedings. Others, including United Airlines and Tyson Foods, have set their own rules. A November poll of 543 businesses by consultancy Willis Towers Watson found 57% needed or planned to require Covid vaccines, including 32% who would only do so if the OSHA rule takes effect .

“It’s pretty divided in corporate America,” said Amanda Sonneborn, partner at law firm King & Spalding. “There are those who chose to make mandates on their own, those who followed the government’s mandate and those who challenged it.”

Companies assessing vaccine needs have faced a number of factors, Ms Sonneborn said, including concerns about labor shortages, political perception of mandates and the need to keep workers safe. .

Starbucks said this month that workers should disclose their vaccination status by Jan. 10.

“It made me feel a little better knowing I was working with vaccinated people,” said Kyli Hilaire, 20, a barista who participated in the unionized store’s walkout over safety concerns.

“You see people every day, you work closely with them, there’s not a lot of room to walk away,” Ms Hilaire said. “The number of customers entering the space makes you cautious. I try to wear a double mask, but sometimes it can be difficult to breathe. Starbucks “strongly recommends” that customers wear face coverings in stores and obliges them where local laws require it.

Starbucks also announced a variety of new Covid-19 safety protocols on Tuesday. Workers are now required to wear three-ply medical-grade masks, which the company says are available in stores, and isolation guidelines have been extended to cover anyone who has been exposed to Covid-19, even if fully vaccinated.

The company continues to encourage its employees to get vaccinated and inoculated, and provides two hours of paid time off to get vaccinated.

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