Georgia employers brace for how to impose vaccine and testing mandate

A.G. Rhodes CEO Deke Cateau getting the COVID-19 vaccine. A.G. Rhodes is now requiring workers to get vaccinated by Oct. 1, 2021, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Photo courtesy of A.G. Rhodes.

A.G. Rhodes CEO Deke Cateau getting the COVID-19 vaccine. A.G. Rhodes is now requiring workers to get vaccinated by Oct. 1, 2021, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Photo courtesy of A.G. Rhodes.

Doug Howard, who co-owns six Georgia hardware stores, wishes all of his employees would get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves and people around them.

Yet standing in his Duluth store Friday, he had a word to describe President Joe Biden’s announcement fewer than 24 hours earlier that all private employers with more than 100 workers must ensure they are all either full vaccinated or tested weekly for the virus.

“Nuts,” said Howard, whose company, Howard Brothers Hardware & Equipment, employs more than 100 people.

He worries some employees will leave rather than comply, and he’s already struggling at times to find enough people to properly serve customers, fix equipment and police against theft. His human resources staff is too stretched to keep track of another requirement. Plus, he said, how is the federal government going to enforce such a measure?

“We will follow all the rules,” he said. If his best mechanic resisted getting vaccinated, Howard said he’d keep him on the job, but “I sure would hate to lose him to get tested once a week.”

Broad steps outlined by Biden on Thursday represent one of the most sweeping changes yet in the government’s required coronavirus response from many employers. By some estimates, the new rules could cover two-thirds of U.S. workers.

Employers are waiting to see more details of the mandates. Major Georgia-based companies such as Home Depot, Coca-Cola and Southern Co. said little to nothing publicly Friday about their reaction, other than that they were reviewing them and continuing to encourage vaccinations.

Most Georgia employers have avoided requiring workers to get vaccinated. Some worried that it would scare off workers and damage their company culture and that it might not be necessary. Some relied on other methods, such as offering financial incentives to those who got shots.

But many employers have increasingly contemplated mandates as many workers resisted and office return plans were delayed as the delta variant surged. Hospital intensive care units have been pushed to their limits with COVID patients, overwhelmingly people who were unvaccinated.

In recent weeks Georgia-based UPS, Invesco, Emory Healthcare, Piedmont Healthcare, Wellstar Health System and Cox Enterprises (owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) set vaccine requirements for many employees, particularly those who enter corporate office spaces or medical centers. UPS’s rule does not apply to front-line drivers and package handlers.

Delta Air Lines already requires new employees to be fully vaccinated, and is rolling out a weekly testing requirement next week for existing employees who aren’t vaccinated. The Atlanta-based airline also said last month it plans to charge employees who aren’t fully vaccinated an extra $200 a month beginning in November as part of the company’s health care plans.

The Business Roundtable, an organization of leaders of some of the nation’s largest businesses, including several based in Georgia, issued a statement that it “welcomes the Biden Administration’s continued vigilance in the fight against COVID” and it applauded vaccine mandates set earlier by some companies.

The National Association of Manufacturers said the Biden administration needs to ensure the federal requirements don’t hurt business operations or add “undue compliance costs.”

Meanwhile, Georgia’s governor threatened to go to court to block the federal moves, calling them “blatantly unlawful overreach.”

Several Atlanta area workers interviewed Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including some vaccine supporters, expressed misgivings about mandates, considering them an overly broad step that intrudes too much on personal health decisions. None said they would necessarily quit their job over it, though. And none of them were willing to be quoted by name.

Others, such as Tyrone Bailey, a bus driver from DeKalb County, praised the new requirement as a way to protect fellow Americans and get more people back to workplaces.

Alex Thompson, a technical consultant with a federal government contractor who has worked with health officials, said he’s a former Marine, but the toll of hundreds of thousands of U.S. COVID-19 deaths “is enough to scare me.” He said the push for many employers to get workers vaccinated or tested is in line with other existing measures, from having a license to drive a car or requiring school kids to be vaccinated against other diseases.

Some company leaders may oppose the mandate and avoid implementation, said Atlanta employment lawyer Mac Irvin.

”I don’t think a company could get away with not complying for long,” though, said Irvin, who represents companies. “I can easily see a disgruntled employee filing a complaint” with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

For other companies that were already considering vaccine requirements, the president’s order “gives companies cover to begin mandating,” Irvin said.

Many employers are waiting to see the specific wording of the proposed OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard, as well as new vaccine requirements for federal contractors, said Devjani Mishra, an employment attorney at Littler Mendelson. Among the big questions: Who bears the costs of testing?

Before the Thursday announcement, about half of the law firm’s clients who responded to an August survey said the rise in cases made them more seriously consider mandating vaccines, Mishra said.

Employment law firm Fisher Phillips said OSHA might issue the standard in the next several weeks and that once it does, it may be another 75 days before it begins enforcing the requirement.

Brad Howard, who owns Duluth-based food manufacturing company Suzanna’s Kitchen, isn’t looking forward to the latest change, and he will wait to see what bigger companies do. His workers have already adopted changes to stay safe while remaining on the job throughout the pandemic, he said. They have “looked the Grim Reaper right in the eye when everybody else was at home in their pajamas.”

As a regulated food maker, he already requires his workers to comply with other food safety measures and workplace precautions. But Howard said he thinks politics and misinformation have invaded the federal government’s COVID-related moves and he worries about losing more workers under the latest mandates.

“We are going to comply the best way we can,” he said.

— Reporters Kelly Yamanouchi and Michael Kanell contributed to this article.