COVID vaccine mandates? A mix of big, small Georgia employers say yes

More metro Atlanta employers are adding a new job requirement: COVID-19 vaccinations. A variety of job postings now include the vaccine mandate, Most listings still don't, though. That could change soon, as the Biden administration prepares a new rule requiring that employers with more than 100 workers ensure staffers are either fully vaccinated or tested weekly. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
More metro Atlanta employers are adding a new job requirement: COVID-19 vaccinations. A variety of job postings now include the vaccine mandate, Most listings still don't, though. That could change soon, as the Biden administration prepares a new rule requiring that employers with more than 100 workers ensure staffers are either fully vaccinated or tested weekly. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At least one requirement is the same whether you want to be a bomb-sniffing dog handler, a video editor at a local Baptist church, a warehouse packer for a metal products maker, a server at a new distillery, a caseworker helping a nonprofit resettle Afghans, or an office staffer for the Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird.

Amid notices about drug screenings, ability to lift a bit of weight and being a good collaborator, an array of recent Georgia job postings include a new qualification: You’ll need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The prerequisite is spreading. And more employers may be forced to take similar steps shortly. The Biden administration plans to soon roll out specifics of a rule, announced Sept. 9, requiring that employers with more than 100 workers ensure their staffers are either fully vaccinated or tested weekly.

The vast majority of job notices don’t mention coronavirus vaccinations, according to job site Indeed. Many local employers say they are waiting to see the particulars of the federal mandate before deciding their next steps. Some fret about adding another challenge in an already tight labor market. And some workers consider the government requirements a step too far, even as hospitalizations and deaths stack up.

But after months of relying on cajoling, a growing number of employers have shifted to demanding workers get the shots, hoping increased vaccinations will keep workplaces safe and avoid more disruptions from outbreaks. Some took the leap before Biden’s announcement.

Buckhead-based Novelis, a maker of aluminum products and the world’s biggest aluminum recycler, told employees earlier this month that anyone entering the Buckhead office would have to be vaccinated. Those offices aren’t fully open yet — they may be in November or early December, CEO Steve Fisher said.

Fisher said some employees praised the requirement. But others complained, saying vaccinations are individual decisions. Still, Novelis “is putting safety as our number one priority,” he said in explaining the decision.

The measure applies to about 350 employees, but Fisher said the company is considering what steps might be applied to more of its more than 14,000 global workers, including those at a manufacturing plant in Greensboro, Georgia, and a research and development site in Kennesaw. “Everything is still on the table for us.”

Novelis discarded the idea of regularly testing headquarter employees instead of requiring vaccinations, figuring that by the time tests results are known, the virus could have been spread to other people in the office. Exemptions for health and religious reasons will be allowed, but Fisher thinks the number will be minimal.

Since the pandemic began, more than half of the company’s North American workforce has been quarantined at one time or another, “which is a huge amount of disruption,” he said.

The virus also has disrupted operations at times at Norcross-based OFS. The big maker of fiber optic cable, with more than 1,000 workers in Georgia, has set Nov. 15 as the deadline for all but its union-represented employees to be either fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

Duluth-based Asbury Automotive, with 1,300 Georgia workers and over 80 dealerships, including Nalley Automotive, hasn’t required current employees to get the shots. But effective Aug. 5, it mandated them for all new hires. Job listings for Genuine Parts, one of Georgia’s 10 biggest public companies and the owner of NAPA Auto Parts, say that “where permitted by applicable law, successful applicants must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to start date.”

Alston & Bird’s job postings show that, effective Aug. 30, the firm requires all employees who access its offices to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Similar pressures appear to be growing around the country.

In August, a national survey showed about one in five employers were pursuing options for vaccine mandates at work, according to human resources consulting firm Mercer. Since then, some major national employers announced requirements and other employers followed, said Mary Kay O’Neill, a Mercer senior health consultant.

Employers are required to provide safe workplaces, she wrote in an email, “and many are actually relieved that there will be a national standard since so many employers have employees in multiple states. The patchwork we have been living with has been almost impossible to manage.”

Meanwhile, 66% of employees in a recent national survey by the firm favored their bosses mandating vaccinations, she said. “This tells us people do not want to worry about their own safety while they are at work.”

Earlier, a variety of big Georgia health care systems, local private colleges and universities, and local businesses such as UPS, Invesco and Cox Enterprises (owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) set vaccine requirements for many employees, particularly those who enter corporate office spaces, school facilities or medical centers. UPS’s rule does not apply to front-line drivers and package handlers.

Delta Air Lines requires new employees to be fully vaccinated, and has rolled out weekly testing for existing employees who don’t have their shots. The airline also said last month it will charge unvaccinated workers an extra $200 a month as part of the company’s health care plans beginning in November.

Putting in place mandates comes with risks.

“It’s a very, very tight labor market right now and if you add one more requirement, like education or years of experience, it limits your pool of candidates,” said Ryan Hansen, metro Atlanta market manager at staffing agency Robert Half. “A vaccine mandate is just one more way to limit candidates for your job opening.”

Alexander Pierre and his brother co-own Axess Health Solutions, a small, Tucker-based in-home health care provider offering Medicaid-approved services for kids who are medically fragile.

Pierre adopted a vaccine mandate in May, after parents insisted on having workers who were fully vaccinated around their immunocompromised kids. Even before then, the pandemic had slashed the number of applications he received for open positions. His vaccine mandate drained that pool even more. Still, he said, four out of 10 applications come from people who aren’t vaccinated and aren’t rushing to get the protection.

“I currently have five vacancies,” he said. Each represents families of kids he can’t help out.

Some prospective workers ask him to make an exception. “I don’t have room for exceptions, because my clients don’t have room for exceptions.”

Abigail Okeh does. The owner of Citadel Community Health Services, which provides in-home personal care for medically fragile children and adults, said all her current workers are vaccinated and are required to wear masks around clients. But in job postings, potential applicants are told if they aren’t vaccinated they will be required to get tested every two weeks.

Okeh acknowledges that people could become sick in between tests. But she said she hasn’t put in place a vaccine mandate because “there’s an extreme shortage of caregivers right now.”

She said clients are informed about the vaccination status of caregivers.