Two major Atlanta employers toughen workplace rules as COVID surges

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Cox Enterprises to require vaccinations, Home Depot insists on masks

The troubling rise of the delta variant has sparked big shifts by two major Georgia-based employers with thousands of metro Atlanta workers.

Cox Enterprises said Monday it will require that employees who enter its headquarters and certain other offices be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Home Depot is requiring its more than half a million employees nationwide to wear masks while indoors in its U.S. stores, distribution centers, offices and visiting customer locations. The retailing giant also said it will again ask customers in its stores to mask up, something it hasn’t pressed them to do since May.

The moves come as local employers wrestle with whether to bolster protections and delay office returns as the pandemic surges yet again amid the highly transmissible variant.

Georgia Power, another big local employer, said late last week that it has pushed back plans to return more workers to corporate offices. The utility, like many other large companies, had been gearing up for a big wave of employees to return to offices in September.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance, calling on even vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in parts of the nation with substantial or high transmission rates. That includes nearly all of Georgia, where the vaccination rate lags that of most states.

ExploreVirus surge threatens local back-to-office plans for Georgia companies

Cox, the privately held owner of broadband and automotive services businesses, as well as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is focusing on vaccinations of those who return to its concentrated administrative offices around the nation. That includes its main campus, where about 6,000 people would normally be based near Perimeter Mall. Office workers are slated to be back there, on hybrid schedules, starting Sept. 13.

“The intent of this is not ideological or political,” Alex Taylor, Cox’s chief executive officer, said of the vaccination measures.

He said in an interview that “Cox wants to be a contributor to society. We want to pitch in and stop the spread of this virus. If we don’t stop the spread of this virus, people will die.”

Workers will be required to provide proof of vaccinations. There will be a review process for employees seeking exemptions based on medical or religious reasons, according to the company.

Taylor said Cox leaders hadn’t expected the low U.S. vaccination rates. “We never foresaw the day when the vaccine would be available and such a large portion of society wouldn’t take it.”

He said he didn’t know whether there will be significant pushback from employees. Cox employs about 50,000 people companywide.

Some government bodies and big businesses in other parts of the nation are stepping up pressure for workers to be vaccinated.

Nationally, Google, Facebook and Lyft announced last week that they will require employees returning to offices to be vaccinated. And President Joe Biden said his administration is mandating that federal government workers undergo weekly testing for the coronavirus unless they are fully vaccinated.

Federal pronouncements and court cases have increased confidence among businesses that they can require workers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, with certain limited exceptions.

Since the spring, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has been requiring new hires to be fully vaccinated. Some other local employers, including State Farm and Georgia-Pacific, more recently have expanded mask mandates to cover all their employees, not just those who are unvaccinated.

Many local companies have largely focused on persuasion to convince workers to get the shots.

Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Katie Kirkpatrick said in an emailed statement that “While we have made significant progress in mitigating COVID-19, we still have to navigate challenges and uncertainty as the pandemic evolves. Public health and safety is our first priority, and we will continue to be strong advocates of vaccination as the most important tool to minimize virus transmission.”

Home Depot’s revised mask mandate for employees goes into effect immediately, regardless of whether the workers are fully vaccinated or not. It also covers the company’s vendors and contractors, including those who go inside customer homes and businesses.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our number one concern has been for the health and safety of our customers and associates,” Home Depot said in a statement.

The retailer, which has more than 30,000 staffers in Georgia, has yet to bring most of its office employees back to its metro Atlanta headquarters, but its stores remain active.