Ford Motor Co. will require most U.S. salaried employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 8 or they could be put on unpaid leave, a move likely to affect return-to-work and vaccination policies at other employers.
“The health and safety of our workforce remains our top priority and we have been very encouraged by the support of our employees to comply with our protocols, including the more than 84-percent of U.S. salaried employees who are already vaccinated,” spokesperson Marisa Bradley said in a statement.
The move by a major corporation and one of Michigan’s largest employers could carry significant weight with other companies, experts say.
“When Ford sneezes, a lot of other places catch a cold,” said Angela Hall, an assistant professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. “They’re following what Ford does because they’re such an influential employer, and they also are linked to the economy in so many ways by the people they employ and the relationship they have with suppliers.”
The Dec. 8 deadline aligns with a federal mandate for government contractors to ensure their employees are vaccinated. Ford’s announcement also precedes a final version of President Joe Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees, which is expected to be released as early as Thursday.
Hall said Ford’s move to comply with the federal mandate could push smaller government contractors as well as other companies with which it does business to move in the same direction, but also likely will make the Dearborn automaker something of a lightning rod for criticism.
“When you have a company like Ford that’s so big and influential, they legitimize employers taking such actions,” she said. “But because Ford is such a big company, you’re going to have Ford being a big target for people who don’t agree with it.”
Meanwhile, Bradley said Ford is “continuing to evaluate our policy for employees in our manufacturing locations, parts depots and Ford Credit, including analyzing federal and collective bargaining requirements.” Employees who can’t get the vaccine for religious or medical reasons could be eligible for an exemption.
Most of Ford’s hourly workers will be subject to the guidelines for large businesses that will soon be released. Those requirements will be subject to bargaining with the United Auto Workers, Ford spokesperson Monique Brentley said. The UAW has advised members to get vaccinated but has opposed a vaccine mandate.
“Our position continues to be that we strongly encourage members to get vaccinated but understand that there are reasons such as health-related or religious reasons that they can’t,” UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement Wednesday.
The discussion over vaccine mandates is likely to get more intense as courts and some state legislatures weigh in, experts say. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month signed an executive order banning businesses from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for their employees despite the federal push. A debate on banning companies from requiring vaccine mandates took place this August in the Michigan House, but that legislation never moved out of committee.
“I would say that we’re in for a very, very difficult battle over this,” said Marick Masters, business professor at Wayne State University. “And this battle will not end in the near future.”
But “Ford is subscribing to the viewpoint that the vaccines are the way to mitigate the effects of the disease and protect the health of the workforce and that it is worth a sacrifice and whatever freedoms might be adversely affected,” Masters said.
Ford isn’t the first automaker to notify its U.S. employees that they must get vaccinated. Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz USA, based in Atlanta, is requiring employees be vaccinated by Jan. 4.
Neither GM or Stellantis NV are requiring employees to be vaccinated yet, though all three Detroit automakers have a vaccine mandate in place for their workers in Canada.
“We support vaccination,” GM spokeswoman Maria Raynal said in a statement. “Our overriding priority is keeping our employees and their families safe. We continue to strongly encourage our employees to get vaccinated given the broad availability of safe and highly efficacious vaccines, which data consistently show is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. We will continue to review our options and will share with our employees first any changes to our current protocols.”
Toyota Motor Corp. declined to comment on its policies, and Volkswagen AG could not immediately be reached for comment.
Subaru of Indiana Automotive spokesman Craig Koven said in a statement: “While we have strongly encouraged our associates to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and have hosted many on-site vaccination clinics, it is not mandated at this time. Those who have not been vaccinated are required to continue wearing a mask inside our facilities.”
Honda Motor Co. spokesperson Chris Abbruzzese said in an email that the company is “strongly encouraging” associates to get vaccinated.
“Honda recently announced a voluntary vaccination incentive program where fully-vaccinated associates could receive a $400 cash payment or a donation of $600 to Feeding America,” Abbruzzese said. “In addition, we continue to provide incentives through our company wellness program. Earlier this year, Honda also held vaccine clinics at our operations in Alabama, California, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and Texas.”
Stellantis pointed The Detroit News to a questionnaire employees and visitors are required to complete when entering company facilities, which includes a question about whether they have been vaccinated.
“Since vaccines have become available, Stellantis has continued to strongly advocate for our employees to get vaccinated,” spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in a statement. “As part of our protocol, all U.S. employees have been asked to self-certify their vaccination status since spring. We are continuing to monitor the situation and, in partnership with the UAW, evaluating additional actions to take in the best interest of employee health and safety.”
The Canadian autoworker union Unifor is pushing back on the company’s mandate in Canada, sending a letter to Stellantis asking that the rollout be paused.
“Our position is that Stellantis should follow other workplaces in a manufacturing setting that have vaccination policies that offer safe alternative options for those who choose not to vaccinate,” Dave Cassidy, president of Unifor Local 444 in Windsor, where the automaker assembles Chrysler minivans, wrote in a letter to members. “These type of policies also don’t result in members being terminated or forced out on unpaid leave.”