Retailer Groups React to Federal Vaccine Mandate

The industry raises concerns about labor struggles and the holiday shopping season.
Vaccination mandate

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed the details of the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but concerns remain among the retail industry.

"Over the past 19 months, retailers across the country have taken extraordinary measures to keep their employees, customers and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of these efforts, retailers have distributed, encouraged, incentivized and, in some instances, mandated the vaccine," said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation (NRF).

According to French, the seven-day average number of cases in the United States has decreased by more than half since President Biden announced the mandate in September; however, the administration moved forward as the holiday shopping season begins.

"As an industry that supports one in four American jobs, retailers have consistently requested that the administration take public comment on this new vaccine mandate. Last month, NRF met with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and stressed the importance of feasibility of implementation for employers," French said. "It is critical that the rule not cause unnecessary disruption to the economy, exacerbate the preexisting workforce shortage or saddle retailers, who are already taking considerable steps to keep their employees and customers safe, with needless additional requirements and regulatory burdens."

NRF has previously sent letters outlining its concerns to the Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

SIGMA: America's Leading Fuel Marketers expressed its support of efforts to increase vaccinations in the United States, while still raising some concerns in the face of labor struggles.

"We appreciate that OSHA is working to ensure a flexible rule that does not further disrupt the already fragile labor markets. During the COVID pandemic, our industry initiated programs to incentivize employees to get vaccinated, including meaningful bonus payments and extra paid time off. While these efforts have been modestly successful, we remain concerned that a vaccine and testing mandate may exacerbate employee retention challenges and lead to a migration of workers to employers with fewer than 100 employees," said SIGMA President Richard Guttman.

"Losing additional employees on top of the current labor challenges could force some retailers to close their doors and lead to limited fuel supplies," he added." We look forward to working with OSHA as it further reviews its rule to ensure that the vaccine and testing mandate does not further challenge those businesses that are struggling to remain open."

NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings echoed SIGMA's support of vaccination efforts but said the federal vaccine mandate will have a significant negative impact on the travel plaza and truck stop industry.

"NATSO members are a critical part of the supply chain and serve the nation's truck drivers, who deliver life-saving vaccines. Losing additional employees on top of the current labor challenges could force some retailers to close their doors and lead to limited fuel supplies," Mullings said, adding that the organization will continue to work with OSHA on the rule. 

As Michael Hanson, senior executive vice president, public affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), noted the retailers have been advocates for safety standards throughout the pandemic and have encouraged and rewarded employees for getting vaccinated.

The industry has also been preparing for OHSA to publish the emergency temporary standard (ETS) establishing the federal mandate. However, RILA had requested a 90-day window before implementation — which now stands at Jan. 4 — to get retailers past the holiday shopping season.

"The current 60-day timeline doesn't afford retail that opportunity, and it falls short of the 75 days the government originally gave itself to implement a mandate on federal employees — a period they have now lengthened for government contractors while imposing a much stricter standard on the private sector," Hanson said.

"While the mandate on private employers technically begins post-holiday, the planning time to design and implement the mandate will fall during the busiest part of the shopping season. We also remain concerned about the nation's testing capacity and have expressed those concerns to the Biden-Harris administration as they work to ramp up testing capacity across the country," he said. "Retailers appreciate that the ETS does not apply to remote workers. Pre-empting these workers will alleviate some strain on the demand for tests, however, the prohibition of self-attestation will require employers to monitor employees, creating a logistical bottleneck for large employers like retail."

Hanson added the fines of $13,653 to $136,532 "are unnecessary and unhelpful — it pits government against private employers instead of working with them to create a safe working environment. We hope OSHA will choose to work collaboratively with retailers during what is shaping up to be a hectic holiday season coupled with a global supply chain crisis, which is already testing retail operations across the country."

For its part, NACS has created a memo summarizing the new rule for its members.