Consumer Brands Association asks Biden for vaccine regulation clarity

Dive Brief:

  • Consumer Brands Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman asked for quick clarity on COVID-19 vaccine mandates in a letter sent to the White House on Monday morning. Freeman writes that many of these questions — broken up into larger topics of vaccinations, testing requirements and operational standards — have come up during discussions with its member companies.
  • The letter echoes a statement the trade group put out on Thursday, immediately following President Joe Biden’s announcement of the vaccination mandate for all companies with at least 100 workers. The Thursday CBA statement references a poll last summer in which 64% of CPG companies said confusing and sometimes conflicting regulations on the local, county, state and federal levels were problematic for their business.
  • The CBA is the primary trade organization representing food and beverage CPG companies, which the group says adds up to about 2.1 million essential workers. The group has supported vaccinations, and some food and beverage companies have also worked toward vaccine mandates.

Dive Insight:

Freeman has repeatedly said he and the CBA are pro-vaccine, something he reiterates in his letter to Biden and the statement put out on Thursday. But without clear guidance on how this must be implemented, he stressed, it’s difficult for companies to plan ways to continue their operations. In an interview Monday morning with NPR’s Morning Edition, Freeman said throughout the pandemic, the CPG industry has found itself waiting for weeks or months at times to get answers about how to operate safely from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Our country’s ability to increase vaccination rates hinges on federal agencies offering clear, detailed and timely guidance in hours, not weeks,” Freeman said in CBA’s Thursday statement. “Across the federal government, we will need to see a degree of coordination, rapid response and private sector engagement to be successful. We look forward to working with the administration to increase vaccination rates of essential workers throughout the country.”

The questions are not necessarily unique to the CPG business or manufacturing in general. For example, they ask what kinds of documentation will be accepted for proof of vaccination and whether unvaccinated employees will be permitted to work at all. How natural immunity for people who have recovered from COVID-19 will factor into these requirements. Who is responsible for punishment if a worker falsifies proof of vaccination. Who pays for COVID-19 tests, when the tests need to happen and whether employees can get paid time off for taking tests off-site. How the federal regulations fit in with state and local regulations, as well as collective bargaining agreements. 

In general, employees in the U.S. favor workplace vaccination mandates  — 65% in an August survey by Mercer cited by The Wall Street Journal, and 54% in a CNN poll conducted by SSRS. The Mercer poll is notable because it talked with 2,000 workers, half of whom were hourly, like many of those represented by CBA.

But prior to Biden’s announcement, most food manufacturers had not required their manufacturing and distribution staff to get vaccinated. One exception is Tyson Foods, which struck a deal last week with the UFCW and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union mandating workers to get the vaccine in exchange for a new paid sick leave policy. Meat processor JBS is piloting mandatory vaccination for new hires at some facilities, according to The Wall Street Journal. Other companies have required corporate staff to be vaccinated, including Maple Leaf Foods and Kraft Heinz.

Unlike many industries in which workers have been able to do their jobs remotely, those working in food and beverage manufacturing and distribution have had to keep working on site throughout the pandemic. While production lines kept rolling to serve spiking levels of demand, in the months before the vaccine, many plants had to be temporarily shut down because of worker illness.

Employers across the spectrum are working to figure out the same questions the CBA is asking. Clarification is expected to come from OSHA in coming weeks, though some labor experts wonder how difficult these regulations will be to police.

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