Manufacturers resist vaccine mandates
Some companies fear employees will leave if forced to get shots.
Fischer Connectors employee Jayce Triplett wears a face mask while testing cables during his shift at the manufacturing plant in Alpharetta, which does not yet require vaccination of employees. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA POINTER@AJC.COM

A growing number of companies are adding a new job requirement before remote workers return to offices: full vaccinations against COVID-19.

That’s not the case at Georgia’s manufacturing and poultry processing lines, where workers mostly have remained at their posts throughout the pandemic.

There, employers are wary of mandating shots, even as the delta variant fuels new concerns about how to keep workplaces safe and open.

And there was not an immediate sign of a shift Monday, after the U.S.

Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, a move that doctors hope will boost confidence in the shots.

Front-line workers at plants are divided over a vaccine requirement, despite some worrying if enough is being done to protect their health. And Georgia manufacturers say they are encouraging workers to get vaccinated. Some are offering cash incentives or on-site shots. But they say mandates are unnecessary or would cause workers to quit.

One exception has emerged: Tyson Foods, with 6,000 employees in the state and 120,000 nationally. The chicken and meat processing giant announced earlier this month that almost all its people, from office staff to production line workers, must get the shots.

The deadline for most front-line workers is Nov. 1, a month later than for the bulk of the company’s office workers.

The Georgia Association of Manufacturers and the Georgia Poultry Federation say they don’t know of any others about to take such a step in their industries, which combined employ more than 400,000 people in the state.

Instead, they say many producers have kept other protections or recently bolstered them to keep plants rolling and workers safe. Among the basics: upgraded cleanings, installation of plastic partitions, measures to increase social distancing where practical, and mask requirements.

The vaccination issue “is the most polarizing topic there is,” said John Wright, vice president of operations for Baldwin-based Fieldale Farms. He estimated only half of the poultry processor’s workers have gotten shots.

Interviews with a dozen workers at seven Georgia plants this month suggest pandemic safety commitments vary.

James Stewart said he wants to protect his young kids at home, including twin infants. The 28-yearold works at Fox Factory’s sprawling vehicle parts plant in Hall County. He’s often within six feet of other workers, but people are more typically spread out and their temperature is checked on arrival. Mask rules are enforced except for those who show proof of vaccination, as he’s done.

“I think they’ve handled it well, the best they can,” he said.

That’s not the way he viewed precautions at a Kubota Manufacturing of America assembly plant in Hall County where he worked earlier in the pandemic. People were “uncomfortably close” together.

An entry point was “like a herd of cattle” and proper mask wearing was spotty. “The chin diaper thing was real popular.”

A Kubota spokesperson said last week that employee health is the company’s top priority and that precautions are in place, including health screenings before each shift and previous on-site clinics for voluntary vaccinations. But masks are no longer required of anyone in the facility, the spokesperson wrote in an email.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that, in indoor public places, masks should be worn by anyone 2 years or older who is not fully vaccinated, and by fully vaccinated people in areas of substantial or high transmission, which covers all of Georgia.

It is difficult to gauge how many of the state’s front-line workers have endured serious issues with the virus to date, compared with the population at large.

Industry representatives say that most Georgia operations weren’t seriously curtailed by COVID-19 cases. Poultry production in the state dipped less than 1% last year, said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.

Many employers are required to report work-related illnesses, hospitalizations and fatalities. Relatively few COVID-19 cases appear in company reports, said Shelly Anand, a former U.S. Department of Labor attorney who co-founded Sur Legal Collaborative. But she said she believes employers often don’t report sick workers, using the argument that they were exposed to the virus anywhere but at work.

“I think we have a huge issue of underreporting,” said Anand, whose Georgia-based group represents workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has specific COVID-19-related workplace standards for some health care workers.

But there are no such federal specifics for manufacturing or poultry production. Instead, most employers have a broader general duty to protect workers from hazards.

OSHA, the federal agency overseeing workplace safety, doesn’t require vaccinations for any workers.

It does stress that full vaccination is the optimal step to protect them.

Employers agree they have a legal obligation to protect workers, even if workers decline to get vaccinated.

Alain Lafourcade, the president of Fischer Connectors in Alpharetta, said he’s wrestled with how to do so for his 140 workers.

Measures included pushing work benches farther apart for social distancing at the maker of highend connectors for use in medical, aeronautic, defense and other sectors.

He said he’d love to also require vaccinations for anyone working on site, and will look closer at the legal landscape and ramifications as a result of the FDA’s shift from emergency use authorization to full approval of the Pfizer vaccine.

But the tight labor market is “a nightmare” and he recently instituted pay increases, and sign-on and stay-on bonuses.“My fear is if we require vaccinations, some people may leave,” he said.

Employers such as Google, Disney, Microsoft, Walmart and Georgia’s own UPS, Invesco, Emory Healthcare, Piedmont Healthcare, Wellstar Health System and Cox Enterprises (owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) have announced vaccine requirements for many employees, particularly those who enter corporate office spaces or medical centers.

Walmart’s mandate covers office workers and store managers, but not the bulk of its store staff. UPS’ rule does not apply to front-line drivers and package handlers, whom the company says have been operating safely all along.

Some employment consultants and attorneys have predicted that more employers will set vaccination requirements as the FDA expands its approvals of vaccines.

Outside a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Gainesville last week, two women said they were rushing to voluntarily get COVID- 19 shots offered by the company.

Signs written in different languages on the perimeter fence urge workers to wear masks. Another says, “Stand together, help your neighbor.

You’re a food hero.”

David Jackson, 54, who cleans up dead chickens that fall in a Pilgrim’s production area, said early in the pandemic “it took them a minute” to put safety measures in place. The setup now is pretty good, he said, but at times inside the plant he’s uncomfortable about his safety from the virus.

He has diabetes and he knows two people who didn’t work at the plant who have died from the coronavirus. While Pilgrim’s requires face coverings and has a person assigned to specifically enforce COVID-19 measures, Jackson said perhaps 20% of the people working around him don’t wear masks. Of them, he said, “really, you’re putting my health in danger.”

Pilgrim’s did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

A man in his 60s who worked at a Mar-Jac Poultry facility in Hall County earlier this year said that, despite mask requirements, he could see some employees working very close to him appeared to be sick. He said he suspects that’s how he got a confirmed case of COVID-19. At other times, masses of workers would be “jammed in like sardines” in corridors and stairwells.

He said he’d like to see the company require vaccinations because “they can’t follow their protocols” for other measures. The man, who is trying to get Mar-Jac’s help for a work injury unrelated to COVID-19, asked that his name not be used.

Phillip Turner, Mar-Jac’s Georgia division manager, told a reporter last week he wasn’t “going to talk about any particulars,” but said the business had put in place many safety measures and had gone “above and beyond” CDC and industry recommendations. The company offers $250 gift certificates to employees who voluntarily get fully vaccinated, he said.

Roy Bowen, the president of the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, said he believes many companies haven’t mandated vaccinations because they often don’t have workers laboring near one another on production floors.

So far this year, OSHA has received 251 COVID-19-related workplace complaints and referrals in Georgia. About one in five involved manufacturing or poultry processing. As the delta variant spread recently, the complaints have increased in OSHA’s fourstate region that includes Georgia.

At YKK Corporation of America, vaccination enticements, including paying employees’ share of health insurance premiums for a month, could add up to hundreds of dollars per worker.

Many people still didn’t bite, said Jim Reed, the president of the manufacturer of zippers and other products. The vaccination rate at the company’s middle Georgia manufacturing sites have been below 50%, while in YKK’s metro Atlanta offices it tops 70%.

He said other safety practices have limited any COVID-19 spread at their facilities, and that education, including dozens of townhall meetings since last year, is the best way to influence vaccine holdouts among the company’s 1,500 Georgia workers.

“I’m happy for every day when one person is vaccinated,” Reed said.