GE, Union Pacific Mandate Covid-19 Vaccine for U.S. Workers

Employees of government contractors are required to get vaccinated against Covid-19 under an executive order signed in September by President Biden. Contractors can request an accommodation for a religious belief or disability, but cannot opt out of the shot through Covid-19 testing. The White House has also said it plans to require companies that employ 100 or more workers to require their employees be vaccinated or undergo regular Covid-19 testing, but that policy is awaiting a formal rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

While some large companies, such as Walt Disney Co. and meatpacker Tyson FoodsInc., have imposed vaccine mandates, most businesses are awaiting more details from OSHA. Some companies have pushed back return-to-office plans and some business groups have raised concerns about the burden of complying with the standard.

GE, which sells jet engines and other equipment to the U.S. military, said all of its roughly 56,000 U.S. workers must be fully vaccinated by the Dec. 8 deadline or have a medical or religious exemption. Like many companies, GE had previously said it was educating and encouraging its workers to get vaccinated but hadn’t taken the step of requiring it.

Union Pacific said it is abiding by the executive order pertaining to federal contractors because the railroad operator ships items like military equipment around the country for the armed services.

“Along with being our best defense against severe Covid-19 illness, vaccines are our best path forward out of the pandemic,” Beth Whited, Union Pacific’s human resources chief, said in a note to staff last week.

Workers must report their vaccination status or have an approved medical or religious accommodation to exempt them. Union Pacific is offering incentives like extra vacation time to nonunion workers and cash payments to unionized workers. Failure to do so will result in discipline including termination for nonunion workers, while unionized workers can be medically disqualified from duty.

Three unions that represent Union Pacific railroad workers have since filed suit over the vaccine mandate, saying that such changes need to be negotiated at the bargaining table. Union Pacific filed a countersuit Friday, which it said was necessary to prevent a disruption of operations.

IBM said it adopted a mandate for U.S. employees by Dec. 8 regardless of where they work or how often they come to an office. “This is in line with the policies of many of our clients and partners and consistent with President Biden’s recent Executive Order for Federal contractors,” IBM said. In August, IBM said it would require vaccines for U.S. staff who wanted to return to its offices.

Most major U.S. airlines have said they expect to be treated as contractors because of their business with the government, and have announced plans to implement the vaccine requirement with no exceptions, except for those who qualify for accommodations for religious or medical reasons.

Southwest Airlines has told employees that those who receive vaccine accommodations for religious or medical reasons will in most cases be allowed to continue working.

Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Southwest Airlines Co. told staff in a memo last week that it would no longer put those employees awaiting a decision about a request for an accommodation on unpaid leave, as it had previously planned. The airline also told employees that those who receive the accommodations will in most cases be allowed to continue working.

United Airlines Holdings Inc., which in August was one of the first major employers to require staff get the shots or face termination, is awaiting a court ruling on a lawsuit from a group of employees over the requirement. Delta Air Lines Inc. has imposed a healthcare surcharge on staff who don’t get vaccinated but stopped short of a mandate. Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said his company is also a federal contractor and will comply with the federal mandate, but believes it won’t have to resort to threatening termination in order to boost compliance. He said in an interview last week that about 90% of Delta employees were already vaccinated.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to bar Covid-19 vaccine mandates by businesses, setting up a clash between his state and the Biden administration. Some large Texas-based employers, such as Southwest Airlines and American Airlines Group Inc., have said they won’t follow Mr. Abbott’s order.

President Biden unveiled a six-pronged strategy in early September to combat the Delta variant of Covid-19 that ramps up vaccine requirements for employers with 100 or more workers, those in the medical field and federal workers. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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