Many large employers in Chattanooga and Tennessee have qualms about a federal mandate that would require workers at companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he will seek to impose such a mandate through Department of Labor regulations. The new rules could affect as many as 100 million Americans, according to The Associated Press, including those at many of Chattanooga and Tennessee's primary employers.
"I think for the business community, you know, they understand and believe that vaccinations are really the best thing that everybody can do to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic. They're not comfortable, I think, with being the enforcement authority," Bradley Jackson, president and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Friday.
Jackson said the chamber had polled a little more than 300 businesses across the state in the past two weeks about vaccine mandates, and about 76% of businesses said they were not comfortable with a government mandate for employees.
"For their employees, they want to encourage them, you know, and some of them currently do mandate it, but a lot of them do not. And I think it's mostly a workforce issue for them," Jackson said. "I think there's fear that there could be a lot of workers that will just say 'You know, I'm not comfortable, so I'll just exit the workforce.'
"In addition, when you look at the specifics of the order, there's a lot of holes in it, a lot of questions that could come up," Jackson added. "Like what is totally vaccinated now? How can you accept the test? How old can the test be? So I think it puts a lot of challenges on an employer when they're already operating in a really difficult environment right now."
Some Chattanooga employers like Memorial Hospital, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, PruittHealth and Elmcroft Senior Living are already requiring precautions, including vaccines for some or all employees, but are waiting for clarification about the mandate.
"We're aware of the president's proposal. Until we have more specific guidance, we'll continue our existing work to educate our employees and encourage them to get vaccinated," BlueCross Vice President Dalya Qualls said Friday. "We began those efforts as the first COVID-19 vaccine became available. As of this week, 67% of our employees are already fully vaccinated, and 77% of our FlexOffice team members are fully vaccinated. We are already requiring vaccination for around 800 employees who have in-person contact with BlueCross members or other business partners.
"We've taken these actions because we believe the vaccines are safe and effective, and the best way to limit the risk of severe illness for our employees and the people we serve. We're continuing our return to office plans, and FlexOffice employees can now work on-site up to five days a week. We are also now welcoming FlexHome employees to work on-site up to two days a week."
According to Jackson, many of the employers and organizations support the vaccine itself but believe requiring it is over the line.
One such company is Chattanooga-based trucking company U.S. Xpress.
"While in favor of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are opposed to mandating it for private employers. We continue to encourage employees to get the vaccine but being vaccinated is not currently a condition of employment at U.S. Xpress," Brad Carmony, vice president of brand communications, said in an email Friday. "We're aligned with CDC [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] health guidance and ask employees to wear a mask when in our offices, terminals and customer facilities. Our legal team is closely following President Biden's proposed mandates, and we'll provide further guidance to employees as we learn more."
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, R-Hixson, shared a similar opposition to the mandate, which could affect public employees as well.
"We are waiting to hear from our legal people about whether we have to be in compliance or not. But I mean, I just personally think it's a bad idea for government to mandate that stuff for our employees," Coppinger said Friday, noting the county has avoided significant spread among employees.
"I think a lot of this you can attribute to the fact that we try not to let them work in closed up environments or whatever, and have them distance themselves from one another, but you know we haven't had like some huge outbreak or anything in any department, because we make a conscious effort every day to make sure people are aware of how serious this is."
While Coppinger said he understands the value of preventing spread from asymptomatic carriers, he said weekly testing would be nearly impossible to implement reliably.
"It would be a logistical nightmare, obviously. And a lot of that is because you can do self-tests, but if you do that, a lot of it will end up on the honor system anyway," Coppinger said. "And the people that are really conscientious and careful right now would be the ones to do it, and those are the same ones that are getting tested right now anyway, if they need to."
Tennessee Labor Council President Billy Dycus, who spent Friday talking to union representatives who are concerned about how the mandate would affect laborers, said such a broad rule is hard to make one-size-fits-all.
"You know, I'm sure this is going to face a lot of legal challenges. There's no doubt in my mind, because it's an executive order, not something that was signed into law," Dycus said. "Now this is my perspective coming from a former union president, but I don't think that an employer that employs union members can mandate a vaccine without it becoming a mandatory subject of bargaining, and having to go back to the bargaining table to bargain over that issue."
Dycus, who is vaccinated himself, said a sweeping mandate for union-represented employers would be a legal hassle.
However, Dycus said he believes unrepresented employees would likely be subject to such a mandate — due to Tennessee "at will" labor laws, which allow employers to "legally terminate an employee at any time for any reason, or for no reason without incurring legal liability," according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
"Now it's gonna get difficult if you don't have a labor union, then I think that the company is going to mandate it if they feel so compelled," Dycus said. "Employers, they're going to have the upper hand, and they're going to force people to take the vaccine whether they want it or not. I do believe that. And if they don't, they'll terminate their employment."
Business Editor Dave Flessner contributed to this story.
How local companies responded:
Spokespeople for several large Chattanooga employers provided the Times Free Press with the following statements on their COVID-19 protocol Friday, in response to Biden’s Thursday announcement.
“We’re aware of the president’s proposal. Until we have more specific guidance, we’ll continue our existing work to educate our employees and encourage them to get vaccinated. We began those efforts as the first COVID-19 vaccine became available. As of this week, 67% of our employees are already fully vaccinated, and 77% of our FlexOffice team members are fully vaccinated. We are already requiring vaccination for around 800 employees who have in-person contact with BlueCross members or other business partners. We’ve taken these actions because we believe the vaccines are safe and effective, and the best way to limit the risk of severe illness for our employees and the people we serve. We’re continuing our return to office plans, and FlexOffice employees can now work onsite up to five days a week. We are also now welcoming FlexHome employees to work onsite up to two days a week.”
City of Chattanooga:
“Our administration is still in the process of reviewing the extensive range of actions and policies announced by President Biden just yesterday. Mayor Kelly has been clear that, regardless of what’s happening in Washington, he believes Chattanooga can come together and lead the way to keep our residents healthy. Over the next week, we’ll be announcing a series of steps we’re taking and partnerships we’re forming to keep our community and our city employees safe from COVID-19.”
“Like many companies, we’re still processing exactly what this means for McKee Foods. It would be unwise for me to speculate any further. To date, we have not mandated vaccination, nor have we tracked it. We have encouraged our employees to vaccinate, and we have put in place face mask, distancing and work-from-home policies to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.”
“Roper has its own onsite wellness center with primary care services where employees, their families and contractors working in our plant can receive a COVID vaccine. We don’t share vaccination numbers. However, we are actively educating and encouraging our employees to get vaccinated. We are requiring everyone at the plant to wear masks, and we have continued our enhanced safety measures. We are reviewing the new requirements from President Biden’s executive order. Our plant is fully operational and almost all engineering and administrative employees are at work.”
“The health and safety of Unum’s employees and customers is a priority. Unum is following public health guidance and encouraging all employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine. We are evaluating yesterday’s announcement related to vaccine and test requirements for private sector employers.”
“While in favor of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are opposed to mandating it for private employers. We continue to encourage employees to get the vaccine but being vaccinated is not currently a condition of employment at U.S. Xpress,” Vice President of Brand Communications Brad Carmony said in an email Friday. “We’re aligned with CDC health guidance and ask employees to wear a mask when in our offices, terminals, and customer facilities. Our legal team is closely following President Biden’s proposed mandates and we’ll provide further guidance to employees as we learn more.”