U.S. employers wrestle with COVID vaccine requirements in regulatory “hairball”

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) -America’s largest garlic farm needs 1,000 workers to harvest its annual crop, but faces an unexpected hurdle in this year’s recruitment drive: it now must document and track the COVID-19 vaccine status of these seasonal laborers.

Employers in California’s Santa Clara County, including Christopher Ranch, are required as of June 1 to ascertain if their workers have been vaccinated and check in every 14 days on those who say they have not or who decline to answer.

The timing of the order, in the middle of the busy harvest season, couldn’t be worse.

Ken Christopher, the farm’s executive vice president, said the company has to develop a system to check who has been vaccinated while observing privacy laws and monitoring workers’ adherence to safety protocols and testing.

“If the government wants to mandate (a vaccine), that’s one thing,” Christopher said. “But then requiring us to police it, that feels very unconventional.”

Workers in the Silicon Valley county who aren’t vaccinated or refuse to reveal their status to their employer must remain masked and should follow other protocols, such as limiting long-distance work travel and submitting to regular COVID-19 testing.

Employment lawyers said companies are watching closely how rules play out nationally, as they look to bring workers back safely and to dispense with mask protocols. But doing so may require identifying those who got a COVID-19 shot with badges or bracelets, raising discrimination issues and complicating hiring in a tightening labor market as the pandemic eases.

Several states, including California, Michigan and Oregon, have their own rules or guidance on documenting vaccination status for workers but they are generally less strict than in Santa Clara County.

In Montana, however, a recently enacted law discourages employers from asking about vaccination status because it could lead to discrimination claims, according to employment lawyers.

“It’s a hairball,” said Eric Hobbs, an employment attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee. “It’s all very confusing.”

Christopher said he is considering a mask-free shift for vaccinated workers and another shift for workers who haven’t gotten their shot to avoid discrimination and tension.

But asking farm laborers about their vaccination status and entering their details in a database could hurt recruitment efforts, he said.

“It’s the additional information being offered to the government,” said Christopher. “The more layers added on top, the more uncomfortable they are in seeking jobs here.”

The U.S. workplace safety regulator, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, has not provided clear guidance on the issue.

“We continue to let the employer make the determination how to properly do this for their workplace,” OSHA’s acting director, Jim Frederick, told Reuters.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said last month that inoculated people can go without face coverings indoors in most places, has not addressed the thorny issue of how to establish whether someone has been vaccinated.

“What companies are debating right now, and we are too, is: is it necessary to specify on someone’s badge or wear something around their neck that, yes, they are vaccinated and therefore if they don’t have a mask on there’s nothing to worry about?” said Peter Hunt, vice president of brand protection and security at Flex Ltd, a product design and manufacturing company.

That troubles Alix Mayer, the president of the California chapter of Children’s Health Defense, which is skeptical of the vaccination effort.

Requiring employers to ask about inoculation status is in essence a vaccine mandate, she said, because the unvaccinated will have to wear masks which amount to a “scarlet letter.”

In Santa Clara County, ServiceNow Inc, a cloud computing platform developer, told Reuters it is marketing an app for workers to provide employers their vaccination status, and, if required, to document it.

In communications with its own employees, ServiceNow emphasizes it does not require vaccines to return to work and leaves it to employees to decide whether to reveal their vaccination status.

“We encourage you to share if you are comfortable doing so,” say the instructions.

The company does require masks to be worn in its offices, however.

Helen Cleary, director of the Phylmar Regulatory Roundtable, an environmental health and safety forum for large employers, said companies should be allowed to trust employees to follow mask rules rather than prove or disclose if they’ve been vaccinated.

“We trust employees to do a lot of things. We trust them not to steal from the till,” said Cleary. “We support the honor system, and think that could alleviate a lot of these issues.”

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, Stephen Nellis and Jane Lanhee Lee in San Francisco and Elizabeth Dilts in New YorkEditing by Noeleen Walder and Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. government workers can return to offices without vaccine

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) -U.S. government employees should not be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to their workplace or made to disclose their vaccination status, according to guidance set to be released by the Biden administration on Thursday.

Workers may voluntarily disclose this information and federal agencies can base their safety protocols, in part, on whether employees are vaccinated, the guidance said.

In a 20-page memo seen by Reuters, the acting heads of three agencies that oversee the federal workforce also urged agencies to consider more flexible arrangements for some employees, including permanent part-time remote work and working outside of normal business hours.

The guidance comes as many U.S. government employees who have been working remotely during the pandemic prepare to return to their offices. It comes on the same day the U.S. Department of Labor issued an emergency rule for protecting workers in healthcare settings.

The federal government employs more than 4 million people, making it the largest employer in the United States. Nearly 60% of federal employees worked remotely during the pandemic, up from about 3% previously, according to Thursday’s memo.

The guidance requires agencies to submit draft proposals by next week and more detailed final plans, including reopening schedules, by July 19.

The memo is signed by the acting heads of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration.

Jason Miller, deputy director for management at OMB, said in a statement that the guidance underscores that worker safety is a top priority as agencies plan to reopen offices.

“This moment in time provides a unique opportunity to look at the federal government’s role as a model employer, as we strive to implement consistent yet flexible government-wide practices that will foster effective, equitable, and inclusive work environments,” Miller said.

The officials also said that agencies’ “eventual post-pandemic operating state may differ in significant ways from (their) pre-pandemic operating state.”

That could mean untethering some workers from physical offices, which would enable agencies to recruit nationwide and share office space while decreasing the amount of time employees spend commuting, they said.

The officials cautioned that agencies may have to bargain with unions before implementing certain policies, such as changes to work schedules and safety protocols. About 30% of federal workers are represented by unions.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Bill Berkrot and Leslie Adler)

Biden believes U.S. teachers are priority for vaccinations, White House says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden believes America’s teachers should be a priority in getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, but he will listen to scientists’ recommendations on a comprehensive approach to reopening schools, the White House said on Tuesday.

“He believes that teachers should be a priority on the vaccination list – he has supported that,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said in an interview with MSNBC.

“He believes that teachers should get their vaccines, but he’s listening to the science, and there are a number of important steps that we need to take to ensure that schools can open and open safely,” she said. “Vaccines are one piece of it.”

Official guidance for reopening American schools will likely come later in the week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Bedingfield said.

School reopenings have become a hot topic across the nation. District officials, teachers, parents and health professionals have been debating when and how to safely reopen for millions of students who have been taking classes remotely for 11 months since the pandemic closed schools last spring.

Educators in major cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, on Monday called for strong COVID-19 safety protocols in their classrooms as those and other districts pushed to reopen.

“There are a number of important steps that we need to take to ensure that schools can open and open safely. Vaccines are one piece of it,” Bedingfield said. “There needs to be masking, there needs to be room for social distancing, so those mitigation measures are just as important.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Chicago teachers threaten to stop working over district’s reopening plan

By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Chicago teachers threatened to stop working altogether if the district retaliates against any of them who failed to report to school buildings on Wednesday to prepare to resume in-person learning for tens of thousands of students next week.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which represents 25,000 public school educators, has been locked in negotiations with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for months over a plan to gradually reopen schools for the system’s 355,000 students. Teachers are demanding stronger safety protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus inside the classroom.

The labor dispute came to a head on Sunday when the rank and file union membership voted 71% in favor of a resolution not to return to the classroom and to remain teaching remotely until a stronger health and safety agreement is reached.

Despite the vote, the district ordered some 10,000 teachers to report to work on Wednesday, instead of Monday as initially planned. Some 70,000 elementary and middle school students who opted to take classes both in-person and online are due to return at the beginning of next week.

“Of course we take your health and safety incredibly seriously,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said to teachers during a news conference on Tuesday night. “But you need to work with us, you need to talk to your leadership, because we can’t get there unless we get there together.”

As of early Wednesday afternoon, it was unclear how many teachers reported for work at their schools. The district and union were not immediately available for comment.

In a message to teachers on Tuesday night, the union said that if the district takes action against teachers who did not report, members will stop working altogether on Thursday and picket, the Chicago Tribune reported. CTU President Jesse Sharkey said that if the district took disciplinary action, union delegates would decide whether to set a strike date.

The district also canceled in-person classes on Wednesday for 6,500 pre-kindergarten and special education students who were given the option to take classes in their school as part of the CPS’s reopening plan. Those students began in-person classes on Jan. 11.

The district has yet to announce when high school students will have the option to return to school buildings.

Similar labor battles have unfolded across the country, pitting teacher unions against district officials over conditions for reopening, almost a year after the virus shut down schools for 50 million students nationwide.

The possible work action in Chicago comes 15 months after the city’s teachers staged an 11-day strike over overcrowded classrooms, support staff levels and pay.

In the current dispute, the union contends that classrooms lack proper ventilation and that the district has failed to provide cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. The district says ventilation meets industry standards for classroom learning and that it would provide schools with adequate PPE.

The union has urged school and city officials to move quickly to vaccinate teachers. Inoculations are expected to begin in mid-February.

The union also wants the district to make accommodations for teachers who have family members who have medical conditions. It also wants the CPS to spell out metrics to determine when to open and close schools, according to the union.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Matthew Lewis)