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Starbucks ends its plan to require worker vaccination and testing

The Supreme Court's decision last week, which closes the Biden administration's efforts to recruit major employers in their vaccination campaign, experts said, would trigger a new wave of uncertainty about how companies keep workers safe from Covid-19.

Now, Starbucks, with 9,000 U.S. coffee shops and 200,000 employees, has become one of the first major retailers to withdraw from its vaccine plans since the ruling.

Starbucks told its employees in a note Tuesday that they would no longer be required to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly coronavirus testing. Just two weeks earlier, the company had elaborated on the requirement and set a deadline of 9 February.

The Supreme Court ruling did not prohibit companies from keeping their vaccine rules in place, and many will continue to roll out strict Covid-19 safety protocols, especially as the number of Covid cases remains high.

Starbucks' move to drop its vaccine-or-test deadline highlights how the court's ruling has placed the responsibility for laying down vaccination rules entirely on employers. And companies face a patchwork of federal, state and local laws, ranging from vaccine mandates that are stricter than the federal government, to laws that block companies from requiring workers to wear masks.

"For most employers, it has turned out to be a daily crisis because when they think they know the answer, the rules change," said Domenique Camacho Moran, a labor and employment lawyer at Farrell Fritz.

Retailers and their advocates had been among the loudest critics of the federal government's vaccine rule, saying it would have exacerbated their struggle to hire or retain workers at a time when millions of unemployed Americans remain on the sidelines of the labor market.

Some labor attorneys say they believe other companies will follow Starbucks in relaxing or undoing their corporate mandates.

"Many companies pursued the vaccine or test requirement just because they were required to," said Brett Coburn, an attorney at Alston & Bird.

At the request of President Biden, the Danish Working Environment Authority had issued its so-called temporary emergency standard in November. It told companies with 100 or more workers to demand that employees be vaccinated or tested weekly.

John Culver, Chief Operating Officer at Starbucks, said in his note Tuesday, announcing the change in the company's plans, that more than 90 percent of Starbucks workers in the United States had revealed their vaccination status and that "the vast majority" were fully vaccinated.

"I would like to emphasize that we continue to believe strongly in the spirit and intent of the mandate," Mr. Culver.

The company's move comes as it faces a growing effort among its workforce to organize itself. Two weeks ago, employees of a union business in the Buffalo area went out and protested what they said were precarious working conditions. Some said they were shocked to see the vaccine rule fall.

Starbucks Workers United, a union representing two stores in the Buffalo area, expressed frustration that the decision was made without their comment.

"Starbucks reversed their vaccine mandate without discussing the issue or negotiating it with the union partners," the union said in a statement.

For its part, Starbucks maintained that its vaccination requirements had only been introduced because of the federal government's standard, which the Supreme Court subsequently blocked.

"It was not our own independent policy," said Reggie Borges, a spokeswoman for the company. "We knew OSHA demanded it, the Supreme Court had not ruled on it in one way or another, and we had to ensure that our partners were supported and prepared to comply with the rules."

Some large employers, including Walmart and Amazon, had endured issuing broad vaccine claims, while OSHA's rule was entangled in lawsuits. Others, including United Airlines and Tyson Foods, made their own rules. A November poll of 543 companies conducted by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson found that 57 percent either required or planned to require Covid vaccines, including 32 percent who would only do so if OSHA's rule came into force.

"It's quite divided in corporate America," said Amanda Sonneborn, a partner at law firm King & Spalding. "There are those who have chosen to carry out mandates on their own, those who followed the mandate of the government, and those who challenged it."

Companies that weigh vaccine The demands, according to Ms Sonneborn, have struggled with a number of factors, including concerns about labor shortages, the political perception of mandates and the need to keep workers safe.

Starbucks said earlier this month that workers should disclose their vaccination status by January 10th.

"It made me feel a little bit better knowing I was working with people who had been vaccinated," said Kyli Hilaire, 20, a barista who participated in the union store strike over safety issues.

"You see people every day, you work closely with those who are not much of an opportunity to distance themselves," Ms. Hilaire. "The number of customers coming into the room makes you wary. I try to double-mask, but sometimes it can be hard to breathe." Starbucks "strongly recommends" customers to wear face clothing in stores and require it where required by local law.

Starbucks also announced a number of new Covid-19 security protocols on Tuesday. Workers are now required to wear 3-layer medical grade masks, which the company said are available in stores, and isolation guidelines have been extended to cover anyone who has been exposed to Covid-19, even though they are fully vaccinated.

The company continues to urge its employees to get the vaccine and booster, offering two hours paid free to get shots.

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