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Industry vaccine mandates grow

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With rising COVID-19 cases prompting the return of factory mask mandates and delaying plans to bring workers back to their offices, some companies in the auto industry are requiring vaccinations for employees.

But no major automakers have done so, and the head of the UAW has argued against requiring vaccination, noting that there have been no major coronavirus outbreaks at any of the facilities it represents. General Motors and Ford Motor Co. said they’re still looking at the issue.

Cox Automotive parent company Cox Enterprises will require employees in some of its locations to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by next month or face termination. Cars.com will require those who go into the office to show proof of their shots, although remote workers can remain unvaccinated. GM, while not yet requiring vaccination, has told all of its U.S. salaried employees to disclose their vaccination status to help guide its safety protocols.

A study released last week by consultant Willis Towers Watson found that a majority of U.S. employers — 52 percent — plan to or are considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory by year end. About 14 percent of respondents also said they are weighing financial penalties, such as a health care surcharge for unvaccinated employees.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last month was granted full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which experts say could give corporations a basis for requiring shots. But while such mandates are beginning to make their way into boardrooms and cubicles across the industry, they have yet to reach the factory floor.

UAW President Ray Curry said the union remains opposed to mandatory shots and that any health care surcharges would have to be added through collective bargaining. The UAW has not tracked how many of its members are vaccinated.

“Our ultimate goal, because of so many different reasons, be that religious or personal preference or medical, is that we would respect the wishes of our membership,” Curry told reporters last month.

Officials from GM and Ford have said they are encouraging workers to get the vaccine and are considering implementing wider mandates, while Stellantis similarly said it “will continue to monitor the situation and evaluate the appropriate actions to take in the best interest of employee health and safety.”

Kiersten Robinson, Ford’s chief people and employee experience officer, told Automotive News in a statement that the company was still “assessing whether we need to expand the requirement” beyond some employees who travel internationally.

She told Reuters last month that Ford wanted to understand employee sentiment and what was stopping them from getting the shots voluntarily.

“Employee views — and the access Ford workers have to vaccines — vary around the world,” she said. “It’s simplistic to have a one-size-fits-all mandate.”

Cox, which owns such dealership technology brands as Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, VinSolutions and Manheim, said it will allow religious and medical exemptions to its vaccine mandate. The company has declined to say which company locations are covered by the vaccine requirement or how it will determine an approved exemption.

Internal documents obtained by Automotive News set an Oct. 18 deadline for certain Cox employees to be fully vaccinated, unless they qualify for an exemption. Those who miss that deadline are subject to separation that won’t include severance pay, subsidized health coverage or paid outplacement services. Employees will receive two weeks’ notice of termination, which can be suspended if they choose to be vaccinated, according to the documents.

Cox Automotive President Steve Rowley said last week on the Automotive News “Daily Drive” podcast that Cox has received appreciation as well as resistance from employees.

“It’s an education process that we’ll continue to monitor and evaluate as we move forward,” Rowley said.

Dealership technology company Cars.com, which provides vehicle listings, websites and other software, reopened its offices in Illinois and Wisconsin on June 1 for the first time since March 2020. Any employee who enters an office must be fully vaccinated and upload proof of vaccination into the company’s systems, said D.V. Williams, the company’s chief people officer.

Yet the vaccine requirement is not universal, as working at the office is optional and the company’s 1,600 employees can choose to work remotely, Williams said.

“I think there will be a blend,” he said. “I don’t think we will go to a space where we force everyone into the office.”

CEO Jim Farley told CNN that some plants had seen 20 percent absentee rates. He cited the return of the mask mandate as one reason.

“The economics of staying out of work are getting more attractive during the summer,” Farley said. “It’s people that are apprehensive. It’s people who say, ‘I don’t want to wear a mask this week.’ It’s a variety of things.”

The COVID-19 joint task force, made up of representatives from the Detroit 3 and UAW, dropped its mask mandate in June before reinstituting it Aug. 3. While the task force didn’t lay out specific metrics that could lead it to lift the requirement, it implied that the masks would no longer be necessary if more workers were vaccinated.

“We know that the best way to fight this virus is by getting vaccinated,” it said in a statement. “The task force is strongly encouraging all members, co-workers and their families to roll up their sleeves so we can move more quickly on once again relaxing mask protocols. The more our members, co-workers and their families are vaccinated, the quicker we can vanquish this deadly pandemic.”

Lindsay VanHulle contributed to this report.