Comment: With omicron lurking, retailers should seek mandate

They fear workers will quit, but they’re more likely to lose workers and customers to a covid surge.

By Timothy L. O’Brien / Bloomberg Opinion

The omicron variant of the covid-19 virus may appear in the U.S. soon —if it’s not already here — but the country’s retailers still aren’t interested in doing the one thing that would protect millions of workers before it arrives: mandate vaccinations.

It’s the holiday shopping season, of course. Retailers that depend on this stretch to ring up strong annual sales worry that mandates will turn off a big portion of the 665,000 temporary workers they have to hire to move goods. Those temps would supplement about 32 million other more permanent U.S. retail employees. As science and data have already taught us, unvaccinated workers are more vulnerable than vaccinated ones to covid’s predations. By extension, customers are also safer being served by vaccinated workers.

Retailers understand that; sort of.

“We all agree with the premise that vaccines are good and vaccines save lives,” Stephanie Martz, a senior official with a large trade group, the National Retail Federation, told the New York Times last week. “But by the same token, you can’t just say, ‘OK, make it so.’”

Why not? If they wanted, retailers could certainly say, “Make it so.” If they really believe vaccines save lives, they should embrace every measure available to ensure their use. Instituting mandates is a clear demonstration of that commitment. Retailers don’t want to make it so because they have bottom lines to look after and fear worker shortages. That fear is understandable, and retailers have asked the Biden administration to allow them to wait until late winter — after the holiday shopping rush — before adopting the Labor Department’s new testing and vaccination mandates for workplaces with 100 or more employees.

But even if retailers’ fear of alienating workers is understandable, it may not be rational. Some companies that have already instituted mandates and then stayed the course haven’t experienced mass worker departures. United Airlines and Tyson Foods are just a couple of those success stories. Governors and mayors in New York and Illinois have had similar results after they instituted mandates for their workforces. The biggest of the big-box retailers, Walmart, has said that “the overwhelming majority” of workers it required to get vaccinated did so.

On the other hand, Walmart has imposed mandates only on its corporate employees. Front-line retail workers at Walmart are being offered incentives to get vaccinated, but they aren’t subject to mandates. That’s a reflection of the tightrope retailers continue to try to walk around mandates and their belief that front-line workers’ opposition to vaccines is unmalleable. It’s also a recognition that the pandemic has given retail workers good reason to question why they have tolerated low wages, poor benefits and indignities for so long; and explains why they’ve been leaving the industry in droves.

Still, millions of retail workers have stayed on, and companies such as Walmart, Target and Costco have tried to reward them — and attract new workers — by raising hourly wages and improving benefits. If retailers continue to make their workplaces more attractive to blue-collar workers, they’re likely to have more flexibility when it comes to doing other things properly; such as issuing vaccine mandates.

The retail federation clearly doesn’t see it that way, however. The trade group’s largest members include Walmart, Target, Amazon.com, Kohl’s, Lowe’s Companies, Home Depot, Nordstrom, Gap, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Macy’s, and earlier this month it sued the Biden administration to stop its mandate push. Its suit argues that federal mandates would cause “irreparable harm” to an industry buffeted by supply-chain headaches and labor woes (yet still, somehow, enjoying a handsome and lucrative surge in consumer spending).

Soon before the federation filed its lawsuit, it sent a letter to the Labor Department offering a bit of sophistry to justify its opposition to mandates. “Workers face the danger of covid-19 wherever they go,” the letter noted, “because they are human beings going about the world, not because they go to work.” In other words, covid-19 is everywhere, and the burden shouldn’t be on retailers to make workers safer.

Retailers that shun mandates are playing the same game of chicken that their vaccine-averse workers and other anti-vaxxers are playing. Let’s hope the omicron variant doesn’t force them to reckon with how dangerous that game continues to be; and how deeply irresponsible and cynical it is for some members of corporate America to say they know that vaccines save lives while just throwing up their hands.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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