Holdouts Remain for Businesses Requiring COVID Shot, Potentially Expanding Worker Shortage

Businesses requiring their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 are still facing some holdouts, prompting concern that workers fired for not getting the vaccine will expand the staffing shortages across the country.

In New York, certain businesses had vaccine mandates starting on Sept. 13. Art Depol of Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes in Times Square said that about 16 of his 24 staffers were already vaccinated. Three got the vaccine when it was required, and five refused.

Depol is opting for weekly testing for the unvaccinated workers to avoid having to suspend or terminate them.

"It's so difficult to find good people right now, I don't want to lose the good people I have over this," he said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Joe Biden vaccine mandate
President Joe Biden announced a vaccine mandate for businesses on Sept. 9, 2021, but many businesses are still facing holdouts. Biden delivers remarks on the COVID-19 response and the vaccination program at the White House on Aug. 23, 2021, in Washington. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Even before President Joe Biden's Sept. 9 announcement that companies with more than 100 workers would have to require vaccinations, dozens of companies, including Amtrak, Microsoft, United Airlines and Disney issued ultimatums to most workers. And smaller companies in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans have been required to implement mandates for customers and workers.

Some mandates seem to have converted hesitant workers. United Airlines said 97 percent of its workers have been vaccinated even before its deadline took effect Monday. But employers are still dealing with holdouts. Alternatives for those employees include weekly testing, working remotely or away from other staff, or ultimately, termination.

The federal mandate will cover as many as 100 million Americans — private-sector employees as well as health care workers and federal contractors. It is a high-stakes gambit by the president to boost the vaccination rate in the U.S. About 77 percent of American adults have had one dose of the vaccine, according to the CDC.

Akash Kapoor, founder of the Curry Up Now Indian restaurant chain, implemented a vaccination requirement for employees and customers of his location in downtown San Francisco in August. Kapoor said more than 90 percent of his employees are vaccinated, with one or two per store refusing. He's making unvaccinated workers get tested twice a week.

"It lets the employees who are vaccinated feel safe," he said.

Alejandra Segura, 28, a senior learning and development coordinator at Curry Up Now, said she was worried about having a bad reaction to the vaccine, so she held off. But the chain's vaccination mandate spurred her into action, and she received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Sept. 20.

"It's a good thing we're required to get the vaccine, to ensure people's safety," Segura said.

"The experience says these mandates do move the needle quite a bit on employees' willingness to get vaccinated," said Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor at Columbia University who studies labor issues. She believes that only a tiny fraction of employees will quit – likely those already close to retirement and who strongly distrust vaccines.

The Biden administration has said that companies will face $13,600 fines per violation and mandatory weekly testing will be the alternative to being vaccinated.

The question of whether employers or the government will pay for mandatory tests has yet to be answered. Regulations from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the office charged with implementing the mandate, will be drafted over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are surging in the U.S. The seven-day average COVID-19 deaths climbed above the 2,000 threshold last week for the first time since March. And this week, a number of state deadlines arrive for health care workers to get vaccinated, raising fears of worsening staff shortages in hospitals and nursing homes if some opt to quit or get fired or suspended.

United's vice president of human resources, Kirk Limacher, said that more than half of employees who were unvaccinated when the company announced the requirement on Aug. 6 have since gotten the shots. Workers must receive full vaccination by Oct. 31 but can request exemption for medical or religious reasons. If the request is denied, they have five weeks to comply with the vaccination mandate.

Pilot unions at American and Southwest are asking the Biden administration and Congress to have the option of weekly testing or showing immunity by previously contracting COVID-19. The president of the American Airlines union warned that "mass terminations" of unvaccinated pilots could cause a shortage of pilots during the December holidays. Neither American nor Southwest has said whether they will require vaccination or offer testing as an alternative.

Delta Air Lines stopped short of requiring vaccination but said that starting in November, unvaccinated workers on the company health plan will pay a $200 monthly surcharge.

Delta's chief health officer, Dr. Henry Ting said that about 20,000 employees weren't vaccinated when the company announced plans for the surcharge. In the past month, nearly 9,000 of them received at least one shot. About 82.5 percent of Delta's 75,000 employees are fully vaccinated. Fewer than five workers have sought a medical exemption and no one has asked for a religious one, Ting said.

"The first 20,000 were very eager, and we got to about 70 percent (vaccinated) rather quickly," Ting said, but the remaining unvaccinated employees "are a very different group."

Ting said the holdouts are more likely to be Black, brown or younger than the first group. "Many of them are not anti-vaxxers," he said. "They were on the fence, they're scared, they want to make their own decision on their own timeline."

COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
Businesses that have announced vaccine mandates say some workers who had been on the fence have since gotten inoculated against COVID-19, but many holdouts remain. In this Sept. 14, 2021 file photo, a syringe is prepared with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at the Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pa. Matt Rourke, File/AP Photo