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Why retailers are fighting for a vaccine mandate before the holidays

The Christmas shopping season has arrived, and retailers are calling it in by doing everything from cutting prices to stocking showrooms to lure back customers who lived at home last year. What the biggest of them do not do is the one thing the White House and many public health experts have asked them to do: give a mandate for their workers to be vaccinated.

As other industries with workers in public roles, such as airlines and hospitals, have moved towards requiring vaccines, retailers have dug into their heels, citing concerns about labor shortages. And part of one of the country’s largest workforces will remain unvaccinated, just as shoppers are expected to flock to stores.

At the heart of the dealers’ resistance is a concern about having enough people to work. In a tight labor market, retailers have offered benefits such as higher salaries and better hours to potential employees in the hope of having enough people to staff their stores and distribution centers. The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trading group, has estimated that retailers will hire up to 665,000 seasonal workers this year.

Macy’s, for example, said it plans to hire 76,000 full-time and part-time employees this season. The reseller has offered referral bonuses of up to $ 500 for each friend or relative that employees recruit to join. Macy’s asked the company’s employees this fall to be vaccinated or tested negative for Covid-19 to enter the offices. But shop workers are a different story.

“We have many stores that have many openings, and any decision that we must mandate these colleagues to be vaccinated before Christmas will only exacerbate the shortage of labor that is entering a very critical period for us,” Jeff Gennette. Macy’s CEO, said in an interview.

The industry showed how strongly it feels about the problem this month when the Biden administration ordered companies with 100 or more workers to mandate vaccines or weekly tests by 4 January. Five days after that announcement, the National Retail Federation sued to stop the effort.

“We all agree on the premise that vaccines are good and vaccines save lives,” Stephanie Martz, CEO of NRF, said in an interview Monday.

“But in the same way, you can not just say ‘OK, do it this way.’

The order has now been upheld in court, challenged by a number of lawsuits from a broad coalition of opponents, and may reach the Supreme Court. Legal documents from the administration warn that blocking the rule “is likely to cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day.”

Mr. Gennette, who sits on the board of the federation, said Macy’s would “love to see” the order in place in the first quarter, which usually begins in February for the industry. This reflects the association, which has said that they want to move the deadline several months back.

“I support it – I just want it on a schedule that works for us,” Gennette said. “We need more time.”

Many health experts say that staff mandates are the only way to help the country recover from the pandemic, as widespread misinformation and politicization of the coronavirus have helped to suppress the vaccination rate. The vaccination rate for those 12 and older in the United States is about 69 percent, with rates in some parts of the country as low as 40 percent. Average daily case reports have increased by more than 20 percent in the last two weeks.

“It’s a pretty big question, nobody denies it,” said Crystal Watson, a senior fellow at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, about requiring vaccinations for retail employees. But we have also tried many other things to help people get vaccinated – and I think a mandate right now is what we need to get over that barrier. “

Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, declined to comment on the federation’s lawsuit or its plans for vaccinations or testing. A spokeswoman for Target said the company had “begun 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.”

Spokesmen for several dealers on the union’s board, 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 are protesting against and therefore use the NRF as a cover,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

He added: “If you had the choice of going to a workplace, or as a customer to go to a store, it said, ‘All our employees have been vaccinated or tested’ or another store that says, ‘We have no idea who is vaccinated or tested, ‘which one would you choose? And that’s why, let’s say, the Acme Department Store does not want to advertise that it promotes bad public policy. “

Many employers in industries, such as retail, which have mandated vaccines in corporate offices, have not demanded them for frontline workers, and share concerns about hiring challenges. But these workers, including around four million in stores, are among the most vulnerable. They often interact with the public and are less likely to be vaccinated themselves. Mandates with Tyson, United Airlines and several healthcare companies indicate that when faced with the prospect of losing their job, employees most often opt for inoculation.

“We know vaccine requirements work,” said Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesman. “The federal government, the country’s largest employer, has implemented its requirement in a way that has increased vaccinations and avoided operational disruption.”

Nevertheless, companies requiring vaccines have faced protests or lawsuits. In some states, legislation has been enacted to prevent this. Disney, for example, stopped a mandate for employees at Disney World in Florida after it became illegal for state employers to demand that workers get the shot.

The panic and precautions associated with Covid-19 have unfolded in stores throughout the pandemic and captured their workers.

First, there was the distinction between essential and non-essential businesses, which led chains such as Guitar Center and Dillard’s to argue that they had to stay open – and keep their employees on their way in – despite the worsening public health crisis. Workers have been at the forefront of disputes over mesh mandates and then mesh enforcement. Retail chains such as REI have been criticized for failing to inform employees about Covid cases in stores. Grocery store workers were not given priority access to vaccines in many states.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen self-service messages from employers putting profitability over the health and safety of their own employees,” said Mr. Appelbaum. “They have a misconception that it is better for profit to take certain actions.”

The business has boomed for some of the biggest retailers, such as Target and Walmart, through the pandemic. And while they are still facing rising prices and strains in the supply chain, managers have recently indicated that the pressure on staffing has eased.

“We feel very good that our staff is entering the holiday season,” Brian Cornell, Target’s CEO, told CNBC last week. He added that the company’s storage figures were “some of the strongest in our history”, which he attributed to benefits and security measures.

Retailers are betting that consumers will be comfortable shopping in stores, where foot traffic is already higher than in 2020, regardless of the industry’s efforts to combat the new vaccination and test requirements. And for those worried about the lack of vaccinations, the companies have strengthened their e-commerce business and pick-up offerings alongside the past year, although in-store shopping often leads to more purchases and fewer returns.

Asked what Macy’s would tell concerned customers about shopping in stores, Mr. Gennette said: “What I mean is that we encourage all our colleagues to be vaccinated, and each colleague wears a mask in our stores and department stores to protect yourself 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 urging companies to go ahead with the Department of Labor’s rules.

“The hope was to provide a perspective for business leaders to remind them that this is not a political issue,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who was one of the signatories. Dr. Jha said it was important for companies in all industries to follow the rule, noting that retailers play a special role, given the nature of their employees. He said that these measures should be put in place during the holidays – not after – especially since that is when case numbers are expected to rise.

“Will they really be superspreader places during the holidays and be responsible for the employees getting sick and the employees spreading it to the customers?” in Dr. Jha.

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