Keeping Store Employees Safe Without a Vaccine Mandate


  • The Biden administration’s decision to nix its vaccine-or-test rule following a Supreme Court defeat has put the onus back on retailers to create and enforce vaccine policies for store and warehouse workers
  • Fashion firms must evaluate the impact of any decision on employee health as well as the need to keep businesses open and productive
  • A comprehensive worker safety policy includes a combination of vaccines, air filtration and HEPA systems, mask-wearing and regular testing

For retailers, this month’s Supreme Court decision to block President Joe Biden’s vaccine-or-test rule for large private employers — and his move this week to withdraw the requirement altogether — seems to have prompted a collective sigh of relief.

Fashion purveyors — who are simultaneously dealing with a labour shortage, supply chain backlogs and an uptick in crime — have expressed concerns that requiring vaccines would shut out a significant portion of the labour force, adding to their staffing crisis. (As of Jan. 19, about 63 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated against Covid, per US Department of Health data.)

In November, the National Retail Federation joined several other trade groups in filing a lawsuit to stop Biden’s mandate, and in November, Macy’s chief executive Jeff Gennette told the New York Times that he would prefer a vaccine mandate be implemented after the holiday rush so as not to exacerbate the department store’s labour shortage during a critical revenue period.

Though several fashion firms have a vaccine mandate in place for corporate workers (many of whom are still able to work remotely), workwear apparel label Carhartt has been the only fashion company to publicly enforce a vaccine mandate for all workers, including store associates.

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Without a federally-enforced vaccine mandate, most retailers have refocused on business outcomes related to three key priorities, said Blythe Adamson, an infectious disease epidemiologist and economist who has helped retailers operate their stores during the pandemic. In order of importance, retailers are weighing employee health and wellness; keeping their businesses open and productive; and helping their surrounding communities thrive, she said.

“I’ve seen employers pivot from discussions about whether or not they need to enforce [a mandate] to discussions with their teams to define ‘what are the outcomes that we really want for our business?’” Adamson said.

Vaccines are one of several critical tools retailers can use to keep store workers healthy. Whether or not they mandate them, companies face an arduous and complicated task in keeping stores fully staffed and safe amid the pandemic. Though they’ll continue to encourage vaccines, most retailers will need to put their efforts behind a range of Covid safeguards, experts say.

“The challenges that are coming to a head are, one, the question of vaccination, [but also] the labour shortage and the ongoing issues caused by people getting Covid,” said Rodey Wing, a partner at business consultancy Kearney focused on retail and consumer health. “Retailers will continue the conversations to drive vaccination rates up but they’ll need to rely on the other safeguards they have in place.”

When There’s No Cure-All

At this point, most retailers have “maxed out” their efforts when it comes to strongly encouraging employees to become vaccinated, said Adamson. Many of the NRF’s thousands of retail members, which includes big names like H&M and Walmart, have already “assessed their associates to figure out their vaccination status,” said Edwin Egee, vice president of government relations and workforce development at the NRF.

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“Many of them have offered store associates $100 and $200 to get them to get the vaccination,” he added.

For what it’s worth, vaccination rates among many retail staffers are — at least anecdotally — higher than those of the general population, said Wing.

Where employee health is concerned, the highly-contagious Omicron variant and millions of breakthrough infections to-date have proven anyone can be infected with Covid and vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike can transmit the virus.

“A lot of conversations have misunderstood the risk from an unvaccinated individual versus the risk to an unvaccinated individual,” said Adamson. “The individual choice of people to not be vaccinated is more of a risk they’re taking for themselves.”

Still, unvaccinated employees are more likely to be hospitalised and are at greater risk of death from the virus, which does not help business productivity. Although vaccinated employees tend to have faster recovery times when they contract the virus, they, too, will need to stay home when displaying even the most mild symptoms — whether those symptoms come from allergies, a cold or Covid.

“In highly vaccinated populations, feeling a little bit of a sore throat or runny nose or some fatigue is one of the first things that happens to people with Covid right now,” said Adamson. “It’s been a big culture shift for retail when you have to make people stay home with symptoms that, pre-Covid, they could absolutely work through.”

A Multi-Tool Approach

Vaccines alone won’t address the multitude of business challenges stemming from the pandemic. Most retailers will need to take a multifaceted approach to store safety and staffing.

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In addition to vaccines, among the best tools are regular employee testing; ventilation and air filtration (or HEPA) systems; and enforcing the wearing of “high-filtration N95 and KN95 masks” for workers and customers, said Adamson.

At any given time, and throughout the course of the pandemic, companies should employ at least two of these tools, she said.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision, retailers had been scrambling to determine how they would test millions of unvaccinated store associates per week in order to comply with federal guidelines. Had President Biden prevailed, retail companies would have had to procure roughly 80 million tests per month, said Egee.

Now, although they won’t have to test employees in the way the mandate had required, most companies are still exploring how to offer that option to store associates, said Wing.

“A lot of retailers are still doing testing now … testing is still a large part of how they maintain the safety in their stores,” he said.

Retailers should also monitor Covid infection rates in their communities and turn to technology tools such as self-checkout to help manage employee call outs when cases spike, Wing added.

“Retailers have to make it okay for employees to call out,” he said. “This is an important time for retailers and employers to really show up for their team … The winners will have deeper engagement and retention of their best team members and the losers are going to struggle to operate.”

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