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Starbucks hides behind Supreme Court to drop vaccine rule

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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration from forcing big employers to force vaccinations or testing on employees, an irrational and deadly move that will likely prove ruinous for American workers.

But not only have judges deprived millions of people of the right to a safe workplace, they have provided CEOs with cover to relax worker health and safety rules. On Tuesday, the biggest coffee company on the planet gave us a grim glimpse into what could prove to be a deadly race to the bottom fueled by fear and political consequences.

After the court ruling, it was predictable that many companies that had taken steps to comply with the federal rule would stop requiring employee vaccinations. As widely reported on Wednesday, Starbucks was among the first to come out. Chief Operating Officer John Culver sent a sterile memo to all employees announcing the move. He didn’t use those words, but made it clear that baristas and other employees now have to go to work in crowded cafes and try their luck with COVID-19.

In the meantime, we can be sure that most Starbucks white-collar executives are fully vaccinated and rarely, if ever, put in a position to face unvaccinated customers just to make a living.

But the Seattle coffee giant wasn’t just making it harder for hard-working employees. It was also at least a little dishonest about it. Culver said he was simply responding to the Supreme Court’s edict. “We respect the court’s decision and will comply,” he wrote.

Oh good? The court’s ruling only applied to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency that issued the rule, and the Biden administration. It said nothing about private companies. Companies like Starbucks have long had full legal authority to require health and safety standards for all employees, including testing, masking and vaccinations, and they should.

The Supreme Court itself had previously ruled that Indiana University could require vaccines for all of its faculty, staff, and students. Numerous lower courts have also upheld private warrants, and a host of companies, from United Airlines to Goldman Sachs, have successfully implemented vaccine requirements. Some companies, like McDonald’s, have only done this for office workers, rather than front-line workers; others, like Amtrak, backed out of strict mandates due to concerns about labor shortages. But warrants not only keep workers and customers safe, they’re also good for business bottom lines. A vaccinated workforce has much less absenteeism and much more productivity than if employees remained unvaccinated. A vaccinated workforce means less transmission in retail establishments, factories and workshops, and fewer hospitalizations and deaths.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued clear guidelines that employers can require testing, masks and vaccinations as a reasonable condition of employment. The EEOC guidelines were later reinforced by the US Department of Justice, which issued a legal opinion confirming the mandatory vaccinations. It should be noted that the DOJ legal counsel’s memo concluded that it was legal for companies to require vaccines as part of an emergency use authorization. But at least one of the main vaccines in use today – Pfizer’s – now has full FDA approval. It has long been clear that companies are legally permitted to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, provided they provide reasonable accommodations for religion and disability.

You might want to give Starbucks management a break; maybe they didn’t realize that the Supreme Court decision didn’t stop a company like Starbucks from doing the right thing? But surely, when a decision of this magnitude is made, affecting the right of employees to a safe workplace, company management will first check with their legal office. All US corporate and university legal counsel know that they clearly have the power to demand vaccinations. The thing is, if Starbucks wanted to make that decision not to require vaccines, it’s their right to do so. But don’t dishonestly hide behind a lame excuse that amounts to: The Supreme Court forced me to do it.

A very helpful Starbucks spokesperson told me on Wednesday that the company referenced the OSHA rule in its original Jan. 4 memo requiring vaccinations. It’s true. But in that same memo, Culver said it’s the responsibility of Starbucks management “to do everything we can to help keep you safe and create the safest work environment possible.”

According to this standard, only a fully vaccinated workforce will do the job.

Starbucks has cultivated a brand as a progressive and socially responsible organization. And Starbucks has done great things. She encourages all of her employees to get vaccinated and boosted, and pays time off to get vaccinated. It also pays for sick leave in the event of adverse reactions to the vaccine. And just recently, it updated its mask guidelines to encourage masks of surgical grade or better. It’s the right thing to do.

But the truth is, if everyone is vaccinated then everyone is safer, especially if they are vulnerable.

I believe the company when they say they want to keep everyone healthy. But it’s troubling that this massive brand could set the wrong tone for corporate America. I worry that other companies – companies that may cater to a narrower audience or limit themselves to conservative clienteles in right-wing areas – will look at what Starbucks has done and see how it has used the Supreme Court as political coverage.

Make no mistake: as a result of its decision to withdraw the vaccination mandate, many Starbucks employees and customers will become infected while serving or drinking a cup of coffee. They can then go home to a vulnerable parent or child. Some will become very ill, be hospitalized or even die.

Starbucks may want its customers to believe it’s just following the law, but the reality is far more concerning. It harms its workers and customers and invites other companies to do the same.