Retail and consumer-goods groups are voicing concerns about President Joe Biden's announcement late Thursday that a new federal rule will mandate COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing for workers at private-sector companies with 100 or more employees.
"While we await more details about the requirements, it is essential that the Administration understand that requiring large employers to mandate vaccination of all employees or produce a negative test is a colossal undertaking," said Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), in a statement. RILA represents large U.S. retailers and counts Target Chairman and CEO Brian Cornell, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen, Meijer President and CEO Richard Keyes and Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos among its directors.
"Testing capacity is already stressed and must be scaled immensely to meet the enormous demand that will result from these new requirements," Dodge continued. And while leading retailers "remain committed partners in the fight against COVID," he said, when it comes to enforcing compliance with the coming regulations, "demonstrated good faith by employers to comply with the new rules should be appreciated and not punished."
The Consumer Brands Association, a CPG trade group, echoed concern about the logistics of implementing and enforcing the new mandate, which the White House said will affect 80 million U.S. workers.
"As with other mandates, the devil is in the details," Consumer Brands President and CEO Geoff Freeman stated. Unless and until the federal government issues additional clarification for businesses, "employee anxieties and questions will multiply," he added.
The new mandate for private-sector employers is being drafted by OSHA at Biden's direction. Beyond that forthcoming emergency rule, two new executive orders will require all executive-branch federal employees to be vaccinated and all federal contractors to require the same of their workers.
Biden, in prepared remarks, called COVID-19 now "a pandemic of the unvaccinated" and said that eligible Americans who have chosen not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 "are keeping us from turning the corner" on the pandemic.
With the new rules, "We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers," the president said. "We’re going to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the share of the workforce that is vaccinated in businesses all across America."
Consumer Brands' Freeman, while saying his organization looks forward to working with the Biden Administration to step up vaccination of essential workers nationwide, cautioned, "Our country’s ability to increase vaccination rates hinges on federal agencies offering clear, detailed and timely guidance in hours, not weeks." He added: "Across the federal government, we will need to see a degree of coordination, rapid response and private-sector engagement to be successful."
"The announcement yesterday by President Biden of an employer mandate on vaccinations and testing for employees, including fines and penalties for businesses that fail to comply, raises a tremendous number of questions," FMI Chief Public Policy Officer and SVP Jennifer Hatcher said in a statement. Among these, she said, are questions about the timeline for vaccination compliance before penalties begin, the logistics of testing and availability of tests themselves, and whether pharmacies that accept Medicare or Medicaid are covered under a vaccination mandate for federally funded health-care settings.
"Since COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, FMI and our members have been committed to encouraging food industry employees to receive the vaccine, but also respected their right to make choices about their own individual health needs and those of their families," Hatcher said, adding, "There are simply more questions than answers at this point."
The National Retail Federation, while stopping short of criticizing the new mandate outright, emphasized in a statement that its members haven't waned in their commitment to keeping employees and customers safe even as the COVID-19 landscape has changed over the past 18 months. Further, several NRF members—including, though not mentioned in the organization's statement, Walmart—already have vaccination mandates in place for at least a portion of their workforce.
"Since the beginning of this pandemic, retailers large and small have operated safely with strict health protocols to protect employees and consumers, ensuring jobs were saved and communities were served," said Edwin Egee, NRF vice president of government relations and workforce development. "Nothing has changed that commitment." The NRF will continue to urge eligible Americans "to voluntarily protect their own well-being and that of their families by getting vaccinated" and is eager to work with the Labor Department as it develops the new rules, Egee said.
This story updated at 12 p.m. CDT Sept. 10, 2021.
WANT BREAKING NEWS AT YOUR FINGERTIPS?
Get today’s need-to-know grocery industry intelligence. Sign up to receive texts from Winsight Grocery Business.