U.S. Factory Floor Is Next Battle in Biden’s Vaccination Drive

Nahshun Nevils, a maintenance specialist at a Detroit Jeep plant, heard the vaccine conspiracy theories from co-workers. From his employer, he got constant emails urging him to get a shot. In the end, an elderly coworker’s death decided it.

“She was at work three weeks ago, and now she’s dead,” Nevils, 44, said at a recent union-hall vaccine clinic. “I have children that are small, I want to stick around for them. And I just want to have the best shot at surviving it that I can.”

Nevils’ choice is a success story for Detroit’s automakers, which have been encouraging workers to get inoculated while avoiding mandates that could anger those opposed to the vaccine.

From meatpackers to steel mills, U.S. manufacturers have endured Covid outbreaks, economic shutdowns, supply-chain bottlenecks and elevated levels of absenteeism during the pandemic. Vaccine hesitancy, even among a minority of their workforce, could add further strain as they try to recover lost production and revive the U.S. economy.

On Thursday, public-health authorities gave employers a fresh tool of persuasion: They announced that fully vaccinated Americans can largely do away with wearing masks, in the most significant shift in federal guidelines since the pandemic began.

Unions and advocacy groups are grappling with hesitancy, too. “It’s a day-in, day-out battle, man,” said David Cruz, communications director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, which put together a digital media campaign to encourage vaccinations among agricultural and meatpacking workers. “We’re still dealing with this level of distrust. They want to be protected, but they’re not yet sure if this thing was rolled out too fast.”

Manufacturing before the pandemic represented the U.S. economy’s fifth-largest source of jobs, and most of those jobs can’t be done at home. While factory owners have tried to adapt to Covid-19 — putting more space between workers where they can and installing shields between them when they can’t — they need a stable workforce showing up day after day to make their products.

They’re concerned enough about the pace of vaccinations that the National Association of Manufacturers has a project called “This is Our Shot” to encourage employee vaccinations, including advice on how to overcome the qualms of some workers.

Even as vaccination rates inch higher, companies, elected officials and public-health experts are puzzling over how to reach hardcore vaccine opponents. With the US still far from herd immunity and new variants of the virus in circulation, holdouts could trigger fresh outbreaks.

“The ideologues, the person for whom not getting a vaccine aligns with their deeper values of independence, rebellion — that’s the group we’re terrified of,” said Ken Resnicow, a University of Michigan professor of health behavior and education. “They’re a tipping point. They’re necessary.”

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday announced a new statewide vaccination program to serve employers. Starting Monday, workplaces can book appointments for employees at the state’s seven mass-vaccination sites or request mobile vaccine clinics visit their sites. The program “is another way we’re working to build out vaccine administration to get more dosed, safely and conveniently,” Baker said.

At a Ram truck plant 30 minutes north of Detroit, an uptick in Covid cases left about 10% of assembly workers either sick or in quarantine last month, further slowing production of one of the company’s most profitable vehicles.

General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., and Stellantis NV, owner of the Jeep and Ram brands, have been robocalling employees, holding inoculation drives for workers and families, investing in ad campaigns, playing videos in factories and flooding internal email and social-media channels with vaccine facts and employee testimonials.

The motivation isn’t unalloyed altruism. Unvaccinated employees could increase insurance premiums for automakers already struggling with rising health-care costs, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And it could add to the cost of care when people get sick, she said.

Automakers already foot a hefty medical bill. Before the last round of contract negotiations, Ford said it would spend more than $1 billion a year on workers’ health benefits.

So far, thousands of people have gotten shots through workplace campaigns, but automakers can’t track vaccination rates at plants because they can’t count people who get shots outside their network.

Scott Flatford, who works at a metal-castings plant owned by Stellantis in Kokomo, Indiana, guessed that about 75% of the almost 1,300 people there have been vaccinated. A minority flatly refuses. That jibes with national surveys, which estimate as many as 20% of Americans are set against taking the vaccine.

In Kokomo, it’s partly a macho thing, Flatford said. Many people against the vaccine are staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump who don’t trust government, and feel they’re healthy enough to survive the virus, he said. They also resent wearing masks and having plexiglass separating them during lunch breaks.

A 56-year-old Army veteran, Flatford was voted out as president of his union local in August. One reason: He didn’t fight against a mask mandate.

“If they wanted us to wear moonsuits in there, we should never argue against added safety,” Flatford said. “I don’t get my feelings hurt. I’ll try to run again.”

Andra Davis, a materials handler who has worked at Chrysler in Sterling Heights, Michigan, for 26 years, finally surrendered to his mother’s pleas that he get the shot, even though he hates needles. He also had to overcome mistrust thanks to past medical abuses, like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in Alabama.

“I don’t want to be no test monkey, no mule,” said Davis, who is Black.

Such reticence reflects broader trends: Uptake among African-Americans who were hesitant is increasing as more people are vaccinated without side effects, Resnicow said. But many evangelical Christians, libertarians wary of government authority and “purists” who don’t want anything foreign in their bodies aren’t budging.

Employers can, in general, require workers to get vaccinated, so long as they provide exceptions for disabilities or religious objections. But most big employers have encouraged Covid vaccinations without ordering them.

Mike Speetzen, chief executive officer of Polaris Inc, which makes snowmobiles and off-road adventure vehicles in 13 plants across the U.S., said he isn’t mandating the vaccine. Instead, he’s sponsoring off-site clinics and giving people time off to make an appointment.

“We’ve tried to do everything we can,” Speetzen said in an interview. “Our exposure rates in the company mirror what’s going on in the community, so it’s tough to control that.”

Employers are worried about being sued, said Catherine Fisk, a University of California at Berkeley professor specializing in labor and employment law. The suits could come from employees objecting to the vaccine or those who object to working alongside unvaccinated colleagues.

“Somebody is going to be angry, no matter which way they come down, so I think they’re waiting as long as possible to commit themselves,” Fisk said.

Waiting might not be a bad thing. Urging vaccinations rather than requiring them can provide time for the hesitant to change their minds, said Michelle Mello, professor of law and medicine at Stanford University.

It worked on Nevils, who cracked wise about his Jeep colleagues’ conspiratorial fears as he strolled into the union-hall clinic. “I’m here to get a computer chip in my arm,” he proclaimed.

Minutes later, he had done his part to revive U.S. manufacturing.

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