With his brief suborbital flight to the edge of space, Jeff Bezos the billionaire succeeded in repeating what was first accomplished by Ham the Chimp six decades ago.
If Bezos wants to really take a step for mankind—and womankind—he need only require all 1.3 million Amazon employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
The newspaper Bezos owns, The Washington Post, is among a growing number of smaller enterprises that are instituting vaccine mandates. So are such major enterprises as Netflix, Facebook, and Google.
But not Amazon. And while the company did not respond to a request from The Daily Beast for an estimate of how many employees have not yet gotten the shot despite workplace incentives, it is a good bet that a considerable number of them remain unvaccinated.
The one bigger private employer in the United States is Walmart, which has 2.2 million on its payroll. Walmart at least took a step in the right direction on Friday, signaled by a memo from President and CEO Doug McMillon.
“As we all know, the pandemic is not over, and the Delta variant has led to an increase in infection rates across much of the U.S. Given this, we have made the decision to require all market, regional and divisional associates who work in multiple facilities and all campus office associates to be vaccinated by Oct. 4, unless they have an approved exception,” the memo said. “This includes all new hires.”
The memo adds, “Because some of the vaccines require multiple doses with a period of time in between, and it takes two weeks after the final dose to be considered fully vaccinated, we recommend you begin the process soon.”
It allows, “We realize there is a small percentage of our associates who cannot get vaccinated due to medical issues or religious reasons, and we have policies and a process to address those situations.”
The memo does not seem to address the great majority of Walmart employees who work in a store rather than an office and do not go from place to place. This would apparently include those who staff the more than 1,400 Walmart pharmacies that administer the vaccines in 35 states.
In the meantime, another Walmart memo announced that the retail giant was establishing “a new process for verification of vaccine status” of employees. This memo also said the $75 immunization bonus would be raised to $150.
“We know vaccinations are our solution to drive change,” the memo said. “We are urging you to get vaccinated and want to see many more of you vaccinated.”
But as demonstrated by overflowing ICUs in the zones with the lowest vaccination rates, urging is not the same as requiring.
And there is nothing to stop Walmart or Amazon or any other business from requiring the shot. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a finding back in December that businesses can impose vaccine mandates.
“The federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19,” the EEOC noted.
“These principles apply if an employee gets the vaccine in the community or from the employer.”
The finding added that employers must accommodate those with medical or religious reasons not to get vaccinated. But the burden of proof is on the employee.
Apart from such exceptions, employees can legally be required to get vaccinated even in such resolutely red states as Arkansas and Alabama, even Florida. And, barring federal action, employers in those benighted realms seem to be one way to get enough shots in arms to stave off impending disaster. The political leaders are too lost in MAGA land’s swirl of ambition and delusion.
On Friday, Florida reported 110,406 new COVID cases and 108 deaths, with 18.1 percent of tests coming back positive. The new cases were up from 73,196 the week before. The week of June 25 there had been 15,998. That meant a monthly increase of more than 600 percent. And yet here is what Gov. Ron DeSantis declared:
“There will be no restrictions or mandates in the state of Florida!”
But there is nothing to stop Amazon from issuing a vaccine mandate to its 20,500 employees in Florida. Walmart could do the same with all of its 113,000 employees there. So could every business in every state.
“It certainly seems like another avenue,” Dr. Sarah Fortune, professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast. “It would be good for their company. It would be good for their country. It would be good for their bottom line.”
One company that has not taken the step, but should have been among the very first, is CVS Health, which has been on the vaccine frontlines.
“While we haven’t mandated vaccinations for any part of our employee population, we’ll adjust as necessary based on guidance from public health officials and our clinical leaders,” a spokesman said. “We’ve made it as easy as possible for employees to get vaccinated by providing access to dedicated appointments, holding employee-only clinics, and encouraging walk-in vaccinations at our stores. We also keep employees regularly informed with the latest information about vaccine availability, safety and effectiveness.”
There remains the gap between urging and requiring where the virus thrives.
But maybe as the richest man in the world, Bezos can inspire CVS and the other hesitant companies to join him in taking a giant step for man and womankind.
Jeff the Billionaire would then be doing so much more than matching the 60-year-old achievement of Ham the Chimp.