As part of the White House’s new COVID-19 Action Plan, President Biden announced last week that the U.S. Department of Labor will now require all workplaces with 100 or more employees to either be vaccinated for COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing to remain employed.
The National Restaurant Association was quick to support the mandate, noting that “higher vaccination rates are our best bet for containing the spread of COVID-19.” However, FMI-The Food Industry Association, expressed concerns. “Since COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, FMI and our members have been committed to encouraging food industry employees to receive the vaccine, but also respected their right to make choices about their own individual health needs and those of their families,” said Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer and senior vice president of the association, in a statement, adding that Biden’s mandate offered more questions than answers at this point.
That sentiment was shared by other food industry groups. On September 13, the Consumer Brands Association (CBA) sent a letter to President Biden on behalf of the 2.1 million essential employees in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry seeking more information about the mandate. “A healthy workforce is a productive workforce, and we share the administration’s goal of increasing vaccination rates,” Betsy Booren, PhD, senior vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the organization, tells Food Quality & Safety. “The consumer packaged goods industry has made substantial investments to keep its workforce safe throughout the pandemic and, since the vaccine rollout, has undertaken innovative campaigns to educate and encourage vaccination.”
However, CBA is being flooded with questions from its members—questions Dr. Booren says must be answered with federal agency guidance.
In the letter to President Biden, CBA asked 20 questions to help better clarify the mandate, including:
- “What is considered documentation for proof of vaccination and how will booster doses be factored into compliance?”
- “What are the consequences of falsifying one’s vaccination status and does responsibility rest with the individual or employer?”
- “Will waivers be allowed if essential employees’ absences or attrition cause significant disruption to the CPG supply chain?”
“All the questions we listed in our letter are important, but we don’t yet have simple definitions of what counts as a negative test result and proof of vaccination, let alone detail on [whether] partially vaccinated workers can come into work, or who pays for testing,” says Dr. Booren. “Government must move at the speed of business in order to maintain certainty for the industry and its employees.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of September 16, almost 63% of the U.S. population has received a single dose of the vaccine, and 53% percent were fully vaccinated.
Many food companies are complying with the mandate, with some having made similar directives even earlier. For instance, Tyson Foods announced in early August that all employees would need to be vaccinated or lose their job, a mandate that was recently supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
As of mid-September, more than 90,000 Tyson employees, or 75% of its workforce, had received at least one dose of a vaccine, up from approximately 56,000 prior to the company’s mandate.