Tyson Foods announced Tuesday that it will require its 120,000 U.S. workers to be vaccinated by November, making it the largest food company so far to mandate vaccinations in an industry beleaguered by COVID outbreaks.

Less than half of Tyson’s workforce is currently vaccinated, chief executive Donnie King said Tuesday in a memo to employees. Tyson leadership will have to be vaccinated by Sep. 24, while other office workers will have until Oct. 1. Frontline Tyson workers will have until Nov. 1 and will receive a $200 bonus with proof of vaccination.

The recent surge of the delta variant has left companies scrambling to adapt to a shifting landscape of mask and vaccination requirements. Until now, the list of U.S. companies requiring broader vaccine mandates has been dominated by tech giants and white-collar firms like Google, Facebook, Uber and Morgan Stanley.

Even Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, is requiring vaccinations for its corporate employees but officials stopped short of mandating vaccines for hourly workers at stores.

But Tyson’s sweeping mandate marks a shift in how some companies with employees who work in proximity to one another, may be reconsidering their role in preventing the spread of the virus.

“Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the single most effective thing we can do to protect our team members, their families and their communities,” Dr. Claudia Coplein, Tyson’s chief medical officer, said in a statement. “With rapidly rising COVID-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the U.S. unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce.”

Mandates from companies like Tyson are more likely to move the needle on the public health crisis, according to Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University.

So far, many companies have treaded cautiously, corporate experts say, fearing worker backlash and difficulty attracting employees in an already tight labor market. But as the delta variant of the coronavirus sweeps the nation and spurs more infections, hospitalizations and deaths, more vaccine mandates could follow.

“Large companies are realizing that if they’re waiting on a green light or blueprint from the government to mandate vaccines, they’re going to be waiting a long time,” said Chris Allieri, a crisis management expert and founder of Mulberry & Astor, a public relations firm in New York. “This is a massive public health – and economic and societal – crisis we’re in and it’s never going to go away without some sort of vaccine mandate.”

Less than 30 percent of U.S. workers are currently under vaccine mandates from their employers, according to June research from the Society for Human Research Management, but more than 60 percent of workers said they would support their employers in such requirements.

But barriers remain for employers that want to enact mandates, said Elissa Jessup, an HR adviser with SHRM. Labor market concerns loom large amid a nationwide worker shortage, and some companies may be hesitant to take actions that could turn workers off.

“Employees may be willing to lose their job or quit instead of getting a vaccine if mandated by their employer. Alternatively, if an employer doesn’t mandate the vaccine, this may cause worry and concern for other employees who work with unvaccinated co-workers and may also quit,” Jessup said. “Employers are concerned because there is already high turnover, and either decision could cost them losing valuable employees.”

The possibility of lawsuits is another deterrent, Jessup said. Many have already sprung up around the country, pushing back against vaccine requirements from a North Carolina Sherriff, a Houston hospital and Indiana University, to name a few.

“The main argument in most of the lawsuits is based on the vaccine not being fully FDA approved,” Jessup said. “If mandating the vaccine, employers must also keep in mind accommodations either for disability related reasons under the Americans With Disabilities Act or Religious accommodations under Title VII.”

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