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Retail should get behind vaccine mandate

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Like many other policies intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Biden administration’s emergency temporary standard (ETS), which requires companies with 100 or more employees to ensure that members of their workforce are immunized or undergo weekly testing, has become a flashpoint. In addition to expected resistance from many Republicans, some business groups, including those involved in mass market retailing, object to the mandate.

The National Retail Federation, FMI and the National Association of Convenience Stores were part of a group of 11 associations that filed suit in the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit earlier this month seeking relief from the requirements imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The timetable for employers to comply with the rule is a source of particular consternation.

“We are deeply concerned about the timing for implementing the OSHA vaccine mandate during the most important season of the year for retailers and customers,” said NRF chief executive officer Matthew Shay. “Our members are already facing workforce shortages and supply chain disruptions, in addition to the legal and practical challenges of implementing this ETS during the holiday season.

“The December 6 deadline to provide proof of employee vaccination status and the January 4 deadline for testing unvaccinated employees are both unworkable and virtually impossible. We have consistently and repeatedly communicated our concerns about the practical challenges of meeting those arbitrary targets. However, it appears that our only remaining course of action is to petition for judicial relief.”

For its part, FMI asserts that the OSHA regulation could trigger negative consequences throughout the economy. In a statement issued after the Biden administration formally issued the vaccine mandate in early November, Jennifer Hatcher, the association’s chief policy officer and senior vice president of government and public affairs, said, “At a time when our economy is facing a constrained labor supply, supply chain disruptions and high consumer demand, we are very concerned with the impact on the food supply chain posed by the ETS, particularly for workers in no-contact or low-contact positions.

“As written, the ETS does not balance key issues like a lack of testing availability for employers and the likelihood of significant workforce attrition due to the mandate, particularly among truck drivers. FMI believes the ETS will exacerbate an already existing shortage of transport and supply chain capacity, further slowing delivery times and driving up costs for consumers, retailers and manufacturers — especially given the 30-day window to comply with the majority of the mandate’s requirements as we approach the busy holiday season.”

In normal times, the issues raised by NRF, FMI and the other associations involved in the lawsuit, including the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the International Warehouse & Logistics Association, and the International Foodservices Distributors Association, would deserve careful consideration, but these are anything but normal times. Although COVID-19 has, to some degree, abated, the virus remains a potent and unpredictable opponent, one that possesses the ability to disrupt the supply chain and other aspects of life to a degree far beyond that of any vaccine mandate. As of this writing, 46,541,113 Americans have contracted COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 753,564 have died from the disease, a number equal to those who lost their lives during the Civil War.

On the plus side of the ledger, 67.5% of the population has received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine and 58.5% is fully vaccinated. Progress has been substantial, enough to allow some semblance of pre-pandemic life to resume, but we’re not out of the woods yet. With more than 40% of people not yet completely immunized and the continued occurrence of breakthrough cases, the virus has fertile ground in which to spread and mutate. And, as the Delta variant demonstrated, all it takes is one mutation to rapidly erode hard-won gains.

The consensus among physicians and scientific experts is that the best way to contain COVID is to immunize as many people as possible with vaccines that have proven safe and effective. Up until now, the nation’s retailers have been an essential contributor to that effort. Through the end of October, the 21 companies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program administered 152.7 million COVID shots at 41,000 locations across the country. The industry needs to double down on that commitment, put its reservations aside, and support the administration’s plan to get workers vaccinated.


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