A growing number of health care systems and other companies, including Amtrak and General Electric, are suspending mandates that require employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The move follows court rulings in recent weeks that paused such requirements from the Biden administration for health care workers and federal contractors. Still, the decision about whether to require vaccinations remained up to individual employers.
The mandates are being suspended at a precarious time: Many employers face labor shortages, while Covid cases are surging and the highly mutated omicron variant is spreading.
Sufficient staffing has been hard to maintain in hospitals, which were already contending with a dearth of nurses and other workers before the pandemic. Burnout has further exacerbated shortages.
That most likely factored into some health care systems’ choices to reverse vaccination mandates, said David Barron, a Houston-based employment attorney.
“Most employers do not have the luxury of losing 5 percent or 10 percent or whatever percent of their workforce doesn’t want to get vaccinated,” said Barron, who works with the law firm Cozen O’Connor. “In this environment, it’s very tough, especially in jobs like health care or other industries where it’s a very tight labor market.”
Cleveland Clinic, which has 19 hospitals, was among the health care systems that announced this month that it would pause its vaccination policy. About 85 percent of Cleveland Clinic employees have been vaccinated, a spokesperson said, and those who have not are being tested periodically. Cleveland Clinic said in a statement that it continued to “strongly encourage” all employees to get vaccinated.
HCA Healthcare Inc., which has 183 hospitals in 20 states, made the same decision, although it also urged vaccination among employees, calling it a “critical step.”
Amtrak announced Tuesday that it is suspending its employee mandate after a judge issued a nationwide injunction last week against a requirement for federal contractors. General Electric did the same last week.
The reversal enables Amtrak to run normally next month, instead of cutting service, as it had projected, the rail service said.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said just 500 active employees have not been vaccinated.
“Today, 95.7% of our employees are either fully vaccinated or have an accommodation,” he wrote in an employee memo. “When we include employees who have reported getting at least one vaccine dose, this number climbs to 97.3%.”
Those with accommodations or who are unvaccinated will be offered testing while the mandate is not in effect, he added.
Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, criticized corporations for relaxing their mandates — especially as Covid cases rise across the country.
“To pull back on what we know is safe and effective is absurd,” she said.
The omicron variant adds more unknowns, but even if there were not a new variant, this time of year should make mandates more necessary, Khan said.
“The variant is not as much of a concern than it being more the shift in weather,” she said. “As we head into colder times, that means more people that are gathering indoors, and most winters we anticipate there will be a surge. How big that surge is is completely dependent on how many people are vaccinated and/or boosted.”
Meanwhile, many other companies eligible for reprieves from vaccination mandates because of court proceedings have chosen to keep their rules nonetheless.
Among them: Southwest Airlines, which said it is monitoring the lawsuits but still requires employees to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, the company’s original deadline. Defense contractor Raytheon Technologies is also keeping its policy, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Going forward, Barron said, federal vaccination mandates might continue to be blocked in court, but state or local mandates, such as New York City’s, could succeed.
“What we might end up with is a patchwork — red state, blue state — where some states, some cities have mandates, and then others don’t — which is going to be a nightmare for large, multistate companies,” he said.