Atlanta business chamber sticks to sidelines in vaccine mandate debate

Some business groups are part of the growing legal fight against a federal mandate requiring many employers to ensure workers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly.

But the Metro Atlanta Chamber, one of the biggest business organizations in Georgia, is among other groups that aren’t wading into the battle even as Georgia joins other states in suing to try to stop the requirement from taking effect.

“We as a chamber have not taken a position on that federal policy or agreement,” Katie Kirkpatrick, the chamber’s chief executive officer, said Thursday in a wide-ranging press call. “Because what we are hearing is a mix from our business community. It’s varied on how folks are responding to that.”

She said the organization is gathering information for members about the requirements and their implementation.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr, along with Alabama and Florida officials, filed a new lawsuit this month challenging the federal order requiring companies with 100 or more employees to impose mandatory coronavirus vaccinations on their staff or weekly testing by Jan. 4.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Earlier this fall another major Georgia business group, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said “each workplace is different, and employers should continue to have the right to establish healthcare and vaccine policies that work for their businesses.” The organization did not immediately respond Thursday if its position has changed.

Opinions differ inside the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Paul Donahue, CEO of Genuine Parts Company, said on the same press call Thursday that his Fortune 500 company has concerns about the government requirements.

“First and foremost it is in everyone’s best interest to get vaxxed,” said Donahue, whose Atlanta-based company has about 50,000 employees globally.

But Genuine Parts, a distributor of automotive and industrial replacement parts, is concerned about the costs incurred by employers implementing the mandate. And because companies with fewer than 100 employees don’t need to comply, Donahue said his company could lose employees to smaller employers.

“We do have concerns around potentially a mandate and what they will mean to Genuine Parts Company and for all larger businesses, for that matter,” said Donahue.

Nonetheless, Donahue said his company is “strongly encouraging” vaccinations for staffers and requiring the shots for all new U.S. hires. That move has not had a huge impact on its ability to hire, he said.

ExploreComplete coverage of how businesses and schools are handling COVID-19

Ed Bastian, who is Delta Air Lines’ CEO, is the current chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Delta requires new hires to be vaccinated and weekly testing for existing employees who don’t get vaccinated, while also requiring them to pay higher health insurance premiums.

On Thursday the Metro Atlanta Chamber announced that in 2023 Donahue will be the organization’s chairman and that Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack will be in that post in 2024. Raphael Bostic, the CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, will serve as the chamber’s chairman next year.

Asked about the federal mandate, Bostic said the “best defense we have is to follow the guidance of our public health officials. And they have spoken with one voice about the importance of people getting vaccinated and respecting how the virus is transmitted.”

ExploreGeorgia’s legal battle with Biden over vaccine mandates grows

President Joe Biden announced the mandate in September. A related rule would require federal contractors to ensure staff are vaccinated, with no testing option, in order to continue selling goods and services to the U.S. government.

The requirements have been challenged in courts by Republican attorneys general for more than two dozen states as well as the National Retail Federation, the National Federation of Independent Business and the American Trucking Associations. Those cases are being consolidated in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has suspended its enforcement of the requirement after an initial court ruling put it on hold.