Workplace vaccine mandates reveal a divide among workers.

Daily Business Briefing

Aug. 2, 2021, 9:04 a.m. ET

Aug. 2, 2021, 9:04 a.m. ET

Credit…Chamila Karunarathne/EPA, via Shutterstock

The tide has begun to turn on corporate vaccine mandates, with large employers including the Walt Disney Company, Facebook, Google and Walmart introducing stricter requirements for employees returning to the workplace. But the policies come with some important caveats as executives juggle public health, labor relations and the bottom line, the DealBook newsletter reports.

So far, with the exception of the health care industry, corporate vaccine mandates tend to cover the white-collar workers that executives want back in the office, not the lower-income workers on the front lines who are less likely to be vaccinated.

Walmart’s vaccination mandate, for example, doesn’t cover the company’s most vulnerable employees: workers at its stores and warehouses. The retailer, the biggest private employer in the United States, announced mandatory inoculation for employees at its headquarters and for managers who travel domestically. For a sense of scale, about 17,000 of Walmart’s 1.6 million employees are expected to work in new headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

One fear that companies have with broad vaccine mandates is that they could drive away employees at a time when workers are already in short supply, especially in industries like retail and restaurants. At the same time, not requiring vaccines may make other groups of workers anxious and more likely to quit.

“For Walmart, they have to weigh, I think which is a real concern about turnover, what the reputation would be to the frontline workers, against the value that they could parlay this into saying, ‘We’re a leader in public health now as a big employer,’” said Peter Berg, a professor of employment relations at Michigan State University.

“From Walmart’s calculus, they may say well it’s really not going to benefit us that much as an organization to do this,” he added.

For other companies, like airlines, negotiating mandates with unions, which are themselves mixed on the issue, adds complexity. As part of a deal reached in May between United Airlines and its union, the Air Line Pilots Association, for example, vaccinations will not be mandatory for pilots. But a deal agreed to among Hollywood’s major unions will allow studios to require everyone on a production set to be vaccinated.

“If you look at the divide of who is not vaccinated, it is people of lower income, it is people who are less likely to be insured, it is people in the states that reflect the politicization of the pandemic,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, vice dean for population health and health equity at the University of California, San Francisco.

Companies that adopt partial mandates that “further widen” that gap, she said, would “only go so far” in achieving what the vaccination drives are meant to accomplish.

Starting Monday, the Florida-based chain Publix will require employees to wear masks in all its stores regardless of their vaccination status.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

With the coronavirus spreading across the country and hospitalizations rising again, and public health officials warning that the Delta variant carries new risks even for vaccinated people, big businesses are rethinking their plans.

Some are delaying their plans to bring workers back to the office, and others are restoring mask requirements for customers. In the last week, several have also imposed vaccine mandates, after having held off on such a step for months.

The decision to require vaccines was endorsed on Sunday by the director of the National Institutes of Health. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Dr. Francis Collins said that asking employees for proof of vaccination or regular testing were steps “in the right direction.”

Here’s how some big businesses changed their plans in late July:

  • Lyft pushed back its return-to-office date to February from September, Google extended its work-from-home policy to mid-October, and Apple said employees would not be expected to return to the office until at least Oct. 1, a month later than before.

  • Uber said that it would not require employees to return until Oct. 25, instead of its initial September date, and that a further delay was possible if cases kept rising.

  • Twitter shut its San Francisco and New York offices, putting a halt to reopening plans without a timeline in place.

  • The New York Times Company also indefinitely postponed its planned return to the office, telling employees that they would be given four weeks notice before being expected to return. The company, which employs about 4,700 people, had planned for workers to start to return for at least three days a week in September. Its offices will remain open for those who want to go in voluntarily, with proof of vaccination.

  • Endeavor, the parent company of the William Morris Endeavor talent agency, closed its recently reopened offices after Los Angeles County reimposed its indoor mask mandate. An Endeavor spokesman said the company had decided that enforcement would be too difficult and would hinder group meetings.

  • Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, with nearly 1.6 million workers, said vaccines would be mandatory for employees in its headquarters and for managers who traveled in the United States. The mandate does not apply to much of its work force — employees in stores, clubs, and distribution and fulfillment centers.

  • The Walt Disney Company said salaried and nonunion hourly U.S. employees at its sites must be fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated workers who are already on site will have 60 days to get the immunization, and new hires will be required to be fully vaccinated before starting work.

  • The Washington Post will require all employees to show that they are vaccinated against the coronavirus as a condition of employment, starting when workers return to the office in September.

  • Netflix said it would require the casts of all its U.S. productions to be vaccinated, along with anyone else who comes on set.

  • Facebook said it would require employees who work at its U.S. campuses to be vaccinated, depending on local conditions and regulations.

  • Walmart said it was reinstating mask requirements for associates in areas of the country with substantial or high transmission rates. The company recommended that customers wear masks in those areas, too. The retailer also doubled its reward to employees who get vaccinated from $75 to $150.

  • Starting Monday, the Florida-based grocery chain Publix will require employees to wear masks in all its stores regardless of their vaccination status.

  • Apple said employees and customers would have to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status in more than half its stores in the United States. Apple said the stores would be determined by the rate of coronavirus cases in the area. Apple also told its employees that they would have to wear masks when inside the company’s main offices in the United States, regardless of whether they were vaccinated.

Afterpay allows users to stagger the cost of their purchases over interest-free installments.
Credit…Stephen Coates/Reuters

Square announced on Sunday a $29 billion, all-stock deal to buy Afterpay, an Australian specialist in the “buy now, pay later” sector. The financial technology firms described the deal as a way to take on the traditional banking industry by building out an alternative to credit cards.

Square plans to incorporate Afterpay’s service, which allows users to stagger the cost of their purchases over interest-free installments, to its payment platforms that serve U.S. consumers and millions of small businesses. Square is run by Jack Dorsey, who also heads Twitter.

Square’s Cash App, a payment platform with more than 70 million customers, has been a key point of growth for the company, particularly during the pandemic as customers have sought out cash-free options. Afterpay works with more than 16 million consumers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally.

Installment plans were traditionally for low-income people, but the latest iteration serves online shoppers who may simply have a distrust of credit, a remnant of the 2008 financial crisis. (Consumer advocates have said that the potential risks of the nascent service are not yet fully understood.) The industry has benefited from the pandemic boom in e-commerce, and could cover as much as $1 trillion in payment volume in a few years. Other players in the fast-growing sector include Affirm, Klarna, QuadPay and Sezzle.

Square also reported its second-quarter earnings on Sunday and said it had $4.7 billion in total revenue in the quarter, more than doubling from the same period last year. Its share price has risen more than 80 percent this year.

The deal between Squre and Afterpay requires shareholder and regulatory approval. Another big fintech deal, the $5.3 billion takeover of Plaid by Visa, was called off in January after the Justice Department sued to block it, and the Biden administration has pledged to take a tough stance on corporate consolidation. When asked about potential antitrust concerns, Amrita Ahuja, Square’s chief financial officer, said the “buy now, pay later” industry was still “highly competitive.”

  • Chinese business ban: A U.S. ban on investing in 59 Chinese firms with ties to China’s military or surveillance industries is set to take effect. The order complicates the firms’ ties with U.S. companies. China Mobile, included in the ban, has been bringing iPhones to Chinese customers since 2014.

  • Bank of England sets rates: Britain’s central bank is expected to add negative interest rates as a policy option after asking banks to prepare for below-zero rates. Most analysts will be looking for clues in new forecasts of inflation and economic growth about how soon the central bank will raise interest rates after its bond-buying programs ends this year.

  • Jobs report: Data from the Labor Department will show whether a hiring burst in June continued in July. Economists will learn whether the reopening of the U.S. economy is drawing back the millions of workers who left the labor force during the pandemic.

A long line outside an open house in suburban Belleville, N.J., last summer. There has been a wave of New York residents moving to the suburbs during the pandemic.
Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Some Federal Reserve officials are worrying that the housing boom could end up looking like a bubble, one that threatens financial stability, and that the central bank’s big bond purchases could be helping to inflate it.

Policymakers don’t need to look far to see escalating prices, because housing is growing more expensive nearly everywhere, The New York Times’s Jeanna Smialek reports. Buying a typical home in Boise, Idaho, cost about $469,000 in June, up from $335,000 a year ago, based on Zillow estimates of local housing values. A typical house in Boone, N.C., is worth $362,000, up from $269,000. Prices nationally have risen 15 percent over the past year, Zillow’s data shows, in line with the closely watched S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index of home prices, which rose a record 16.6 percent in the year through May.

“It’s making me nervous that you’ve got this incipient housing bubble, with anecdotal reports backed up by a lot of the data,” James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said during a call with reporters on Friday. He doesn’t think things are at crisis levels yet, but he says the Fed should avoid feeding the situation further.

Industry experts say the boom emerged from a cocktail of low interest rates, booming demand and supply bottlenecks. It’s a situation that many are feeling acutely with no single policy to blame and no easy fix.

Fed officials face a particularly tricky calculus when it comes to housing.

Their policies definitely help to drive demand. Bond-buying and low Fed interest rates make mortgages cheaper, inspiring people to borrow more and buy bigger. But rates aren’t the sole factor behind the home price surge. There are also demographics, a pandemic-spurred desire for space, and a very limited supply of homes for sale — factors outside the central bank’s control.

The headquarters of News Corp Australia in Sydney last year.
Credit…Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

YouTube has suspended the conservative news channel Sky News Australia for a week for breaching the platform’s coronavirus misinformation policy.

The broadcaster, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and has nearly two million subscribers on YouTube, is not allowed to upload new videos for the duration of its suspension, which began on Thursday. Existing videos on its account can still be viewed.

In a statement to The New York Times on Monday, YouTube said it had removed Sky News videos and issued a strike against the broadcaster in accordance with policies “to prevent the spread of coronavirus information that could cause real-world harm.”

This is the first strike for Sky News. If it receives three strikes within 90 days, its YouTube channel will be permanently deleted.

The statement did not specify what content was removed.

Sky News said in a statement on its website on Sunday that the suspension had resulted from “a review of old videos published to the channel,” and that it “acknowledges YouTube’s right to enforce its policies.”

An opinion piece published by Sky News on Sunday criticized the suspension as an “assault on freedom of thought” and said that some of the removed videos had featured debates over the efficacy of masks and lockdowns.

Lockdowns have been a contentious topic in Australia, where two of the largest cities are under stay-at-home orders amid growing clusters of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus. Brisbane began a three-day lockdown on Saturday after six cases were discovered, and on Monday it was extended until Sunday. In Sydney, where an outbreak of the Delta variant has grown to more than 3,500 cases, 300 soldiers are patrolling the streets to enforce a lockdown that is in its sixth week.

Officials say the lockdowns are necessary because not enough Australians have been inoculated against Covid-19. Only 15 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database.

The Sky News suspension came on the same day it was reported that The Daily Telegraph, a Sydney tabloid that is also owned by News Corporation, had dropped a weekly column by the Sky News commentator Alan Jones.

In a segment on his Sky News show last month, Mr. Jones and Craig Kelly, an Australian lawmaker and conspiracy theorist, falsely claimed that the Delta variant was less deadly than the original form of the coronavirus and that people who had been vaccinated were more likely to die from the virus. Sky News subsequently retracted the segment and issued a correction.

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