Companies in Columbus and elsewhere in Ohio are pausing their employee vaccine requirements pending the outcome of legal challenges to a federal rule.
While some major U.S. companies including Google, Facebook and Walmart continue to require their workers to be vaccinated, many in Ohio are waiting to see whether such requirements become law.
The insurer Nationwide, for example, is hitting the pause button after saying it planned to require the vaccines.
"The company will continue to prepare its policies in the event the mandate remains effective but will adjust pending the outcome of the legal challenges being reviewed by the courts," the company said.
Vaccine mandate: What does Biden rule require?
The Biden administration rule requires that employees of companies with at least 100 workers be vaccinated or be regularly tested for COVID starting Jan. 4. The rule also requires unvaccinated employees to wear masks indoors. The rule does not apply to employees who are not in regular contact with others, such as those who work from home.
The rule, which applies to about 84 million workers, was blocked by a federal court that found that it "grossly exceeds" the authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati is now reviewing the requirement.
The requirement would apply to nearly 2 million Ohio workers, including about 300,000 in Franklin County, according to data from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Many companies, including some in Ohio such as FirstEnergy Corp. in Akron, encouraged the vaccine, while other major national firms started requiring it such as Citigroup, Anthem, CVS, General Electric, Microsoft and Walgreens.
In a survey from mid-November, after the OSHA rule had been halted, the advisory firm Willis Towers Watson found that 18% of U.S. employers required vaccinations, 7% planned to no matter the legal outcome of the rule, and 32% planned to if the OSHA rule takes effect.
How are large employers in Ohio reacting to the vaccine mandate's legal challenges?
Some large Columbus-area employers who have been at the forefront of COVID safety measures have stopped short of requiring vaccines.
JPMorgan Chase, the largest private employer in the area, requires non-vaccinated employees who work in the office to be tested for COVID at least twice a week. Chase also prohibits unvaccinated workers from attending company gatherings of more than 25 people. The company also requires all employees, vaccinated or not, to wear a mask in the office.
"We believe that regular testing is an important step in preventing the spread of the virus in our locations," the company said in a memo to employees. "In the coming weeks, we will launch at-home rapid test kits to make required testing as easy as possible."
Others adapted their policies to the legal challenges, while continuing to encourage vaccines.
Like Nationwide, Worthington Industries halted its vaccine requirement plans.
"Since OSHA announced it was suspending all implementation and enforcement of the ETS (Emergency Temporary Standard), Worthington has put its ETS compliance efforts on hold at this time," according to a company spokesperson.
Procter & Gamble, based in Cincinnati, said soon after the court ruling that it was also delaying its vaccine requirement for its 26,000 workers.
American Electric Power also is keeping an eye on the OSHA legal case.
"We have strongly encouraged our employees to get vaccinated and have provided incentives to those who did," a company spokesperson said. "The OSHA rules are currently under judicial review. While we are closely monitoring the proceedings, we are not requiring vaccination or testing at this time."
Safelite does not require vaccines but would if the requirement takes effect.
"We support those who wished to be vaccinated and will comply with any federal mandate that goes into effect," a company spokesperson said.
Employers are nervously tip-toeing around the issue, which has become politically charged and could damage their ability to attract and retain employees.
Many large Columbus-area employers including Honda, Kroger, Huntington and CoverMyMeds did not respond to Dispatch queries about their vaccine or testing requirements. Others, such as Cameron Mitchell Restaurants and White Castle, declined to comment.
"I think that a lot of the fear and the concern is growing out of other issues that exist, particularly the labor market concern," said Ben Shepler, a labor and employment attorney at Vorys Sater Seymour & Pease in Columbus.
"The biggest specific issue I'm hearing is, 'I cannot afford to lose folks.' And so I think that's going to drive a lot of a decision-making as to whether employers implement a full vaccine mandate or whether they allow for employees to opt for being tested weekly."
Shepler said the rule is so far-reaching that it may not survive legal challenges.
"It is certainly open to legal challenges on a variety of fronts," he said. "I would not be surprised if it ultimately never ended up going into effect."
Some companies are moving ahead with the vaccine requirement fully aware that the requirements are controversial. Battelle, a federal contractor, for example, requires employees to be vaccinated.
“To date, the vast majority of our workforce has submitted proof that they are vaccinated," said Katy Delaney, director of media relations for the research firm, which is providing free vaccination onsite to employees.
“It’s no secret that at companies around the country, there are some people who do not agree with the mandate,” Delaney said. “So, I would expect, like at other companies, there will be a percentage who won’t want to get the vaccine and will leave.”
Dispatch reporters Erica Thompson and Patrick Cooley and business editor Katy Smith contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio companies back off vaccine requirement amid Biden rule challenge