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What Businesses Are Saying About Biden's New Vaccine Mandate

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As COVID continues to spread in the U.S., President Biden is putting in place new requirements for millions of American workers. Most federal employees and contractors who do business with the federal government must get vaccinated. And sometime soon, if it all goes according to his plans, workers at companies with at least 100 employees will have to get vaccinated, too, or undergo weekly testing. NPR's Andrea Hsu is here to talk about that with us. Hi. Good morning.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think the reaction to this vaccine mandate for private sector workers has been pretty strident.

HSU: Yeah. Well, as you'd expect, there's been some pushback. Republicans, like Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota, have threatened to take Biden to court over this. And all over social media, there are people who are calling it authoritarian and tyrannical. But, Lulu, a lot of companies have welcomed this move. They want to get their workers vaccinated, but they were reluctant to impose their own mandates.

There's a frozen foods company that I've been checking in with throughout the pandemic. It's called Bellisio Foods. They have a manufacturing plant in Ohio. And Margot McManus, their chief people officer, told me, philosophically, this is a good thing, but she is worried about how they're going to execute it. And she thinks this vaccine requirement could make it even harder for them to find workers.

MARGOT MCMANUS: There's an incredible labor shortage, and people are trying to make sure that you're an employer of choice so people want to stay with you, and now we add on a whole nother layer of complexity.

HSU: She told me, right now, the company's overall vaccination rate is about 50%, but among union workers, the ones who are on the production floor, it's just 30%, and that's after the company has gone to great lengths to convince people, even bringing the vaccines on-site.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's fascinating. Now, as we've said at the start, there is a testing option for employees at private companies who won't get vaccinated. What's that going to look like?

HSU: Well, very few details. Biden said private-sector workers must get vaccinated or be tested at least once a week, but it's not clear who's supposed to pay for that. Margot McManus at Bellisio assumes it's going to fall to the companies. And just imagine the cost of testing 500 people weekly, not to mention running the operation, tracking everything. And there's also a lot of doubt over how effective testing is in keeping workplaces safe. You know, yesterday, as you said, Biden told federal workers and health care workers, you don't have that option - testing instead of vaccinations. Washington state did the same thing for its state workers. Here's Governor Jay Inslee last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY INSLEE: We are past the point of thinking we can test our way to safety here. Tests are helpful, but what we have learned in the state of Washington is that they don't solve the problem.

HSU: And he went on to mention that two corrections workers who were undergoing weekly testing died in the span of just one month.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, many workers in the United States are represented by unions. How have they responded to this?

HSU: They've been strongly encouraging their members to get vaccinated. But even just a few weeks ago, many said they were against vaccine mandates. But now the tide seems to be turning. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union struck a deal with the meat and chicken producer Tyson Foods over its vaccine mandate, and that resulted in some new paid sick leave for front-line workers. Their stance now is, we'll work with the administration to ensure that essential workers have a voice in shaping the final rules. And one last thing, Lulu The mandate at Tyson Foods seems to be working. They report that since it was announced in early August, about half of the workers who were unvaccinated then have gotten it done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Andrea Hsu. Thank you very much.

HSU: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENRA'S "WHERE WE LEFT OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.