Carhartt said vaccination remains mandatory for employees. A conservative backlash followed.

Carhartt gear inside a Tractor Supply Company store. (AP) (AP)
·6 min read

After the Supreme Court's decision that large companies do not have to force workers to get coronavirus shots or tests, employees nationwide have wondered how the high court's ruling on the vaccination mandate from the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration would affect them.

The issue bubbled up so much among employees at Carhartt, the Michigan-based workwear and other clothing company, that CEO Mark Valade emailed workers a day after the Supreme Court ruling to provide some clarity: Vaccination remained mandatory.

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"We put workplace safety at the very top of our priority list and the Supreme Court's recent ruling doesn't impact that core value," Valade wrote Friday, according to a copy of the email published to social media. "We, and the medical community, continue to believe vaccines are necessary to ensure a safe working environment for every associate and even perhaps their households."

Valade, who noted how the private company was not changing the mandatory vaccination policy that would result in termination for employees who don't comply, added: "An unvaccinated workforce is both a people and business risk that our company is unwilling to take."

Video: Omicron broke through our vaccines. How can we adapt?

While the email has been celebrated by Carhartt fans supportive of its health and safety measures, some conservatives and anti-vaccine pundits have targeted the company on social media in what appears to be the latest attempt to shame and boycott a company over its mandatory coronavirus vaccination policy for employees. The company has also faced protests from employees opposed to the vaccination policy in recent months.

"Definitely should stop buying their products if you do," tweeted Elijah Schaffer, a host with the right-wing network, the Blaze.

Carhartt spokeswoman Amy Hellebuyck confirmed to The Washington Post on Tuesday that Valade sent the internal email to employees "as part of our long-standing commitment to workplace safety."

"Our recent communication to employees was to reinforce that the Supreme Court ruling does not affect the mandate we put in place," she said in a statement. "Carhartt fully understands and respects the varying opinions on this topic, and we are aware some of our associates do not support this policy. However, we stand behind our decision because we believe vaccines are necessary to protect our workforce."

The company's stance comes on the heels of what's considered a dramatic blow to the federal government's most far-reaching initiative to combat COVID-19 and boost the country's lagging vaccination rate. The decision last week by the Supreme Court's conservative majority, which said Congress had not given OSHA the power to impose the sweeping vaccination-or-testing requirement in large workplaces nationwide, affects 84 million employees, more than half the U.S. labor force.

The court did, however, allow a different and smaller policy to go forward, requiring vaccinations for most health-care workers at facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds.

President Joe Biden noted in a statement that he was disappointed the court ruled against the administration on the workplace rules, but has called on business leaders to "institute vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers, and communities." Many large companies nationwide, including The Washington Post, have already required employees to show proof of vaccination.

The country is averaging nearly 724,000 new coronavirus infections a day, a rate that's declining compared with the previous seven-day average, according to data tracked by The Post.

Approximately 63% of the country is fully vaccinated as of Tuesday. Although many workers are already immunized, the Biden administration had hoped the OSHA requirements would compel upward of an additional 20 million people to get the shots.

Carhartt announced last year that it was instituting a requirement for employees to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 or face dismissal. The company said it would review requests for medical or religious exemptions from vaccination and let employees know by Dec. 10, whether their exemptions would be granted, according to WEVV, a CBS/Fox affiliate in Evansville, Indiana.

The company's policy was initially met with pushback from some employees, specifically a group of workers in Kentucky. In November, a handful of workers at a plant in Hanson, Kentucky, said that while they weren't against vaccines, they believed Carhartt crossed the line by making vaccination mandatory.

"I think it should be a choice," Lance Gary, a Carhartt employee carrying an American flag, told WEHT, an ABC affiliate in Evansville, at the time. "But Carhartt has made it not our choice, they've made it mandatory."

A similar demonstration unfolded a few days later in nearby Madisonville, about 100 miles north of Nashville. Carhartt workers waved flags, held signs and blasted songs such as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" to shine a light on the company's vaccination policy.

"All of us associates have worked completely through the pandemic. We've been loyal, we've been faithful, and now all of a sudden it's like, 'You've got to comply,' " Angela Faulk, a benefits specialist with Carhartt, told WEVV last month. "We love Carhartt, we love working for Carhartt, but we just feel like this decision is wrong."

Valade wrote last week that workers in two Carhartt locations, including Madisonville, had been given extensions to the company's vaccination deadline and had until Feb. 15 to get immunized.

But the attention surrounding the company's vaccination policy was amplified Tuesday after a screenshot of Valade's email was widely shared by conservative pundits, causing Carhartt to trend on Twitter all day. The workwear brand once championed by Republican politicians such as Sarah Palin and Rick Perry found scorn from conservatives online.

"Went from 'Buy Carhartt' to 'Bye Carhartt' real quick!" tweeted conservative author Ashley St. Clair.

Some made baseless claims that the company's policy was a form of "medical abuse," but others pointed out that Carhartt had the right to require employees to get vaccinated.

"If you do not want to adhere to their policies, quit. This is a free market," wrote conservative commentator Carmine Sabia. "In the same way I do not want the government mandating what we must do, we cannot mandate what a business can do."

It's not the first time in recent months that a popular apparel company has found itself entangled in an issue related to politics or public health. In August, Patagonia announced it would no longer sell its merchandise at a popular Wyoming ski resort after one of the owners hosted a fundraiser featuring Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and other Republicans supportive of former president Donald Trump. Days after the fundraiser at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Greene was again suspended from Twitter after she falsely claimed in a tweet that coronavirus vaccines are failing.

Despite the conservative blowback, many on social media applauded Carhartt for sticking with its vaccination mandate, despite the Supreme Court ruling. Comedian Roy Wood Jr. recognized how angered some conservatives had to be if they were willing to let go of their Carhartt apparel during a stretch of frigid weather.

"They throwing out the Carhartt in the dead of winter?!" he tweeted. "Oh they MAD mad."

John Schwartz, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the leaked email about employee vaccinations earned Carhartt some more business.

"I've always liked Carhartt gear," he wrote. "Might be time to buy some more."

Robert Barnes contributed to this report.

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