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Job board describing itself as a ‘modern day underground railroad’ aims to support people ‘regardless of vaccination status’

December 21, 2021, 5:09 PM UTC

At first glance, RedBalloon appears to be an online job board like any other. 

A search tool invites users to browse openings across some 60 industries, from education to engineering. A blog page features business strategy missives from the company’s founder and CEO, Andrew Crapuchettes, and there’s a recurring Q&A column called “Ask the Labor Lawyer,” geared toward employers. 

But there are hints that this employment site is different from others. The site’s home page proclaims it “the job board for the pro-freedom community,” touting the platform as one that “envision[s] a world beyond cancel culture.” Beyond the landing page, a merchandise page sells branded T-shirts emblazoned with the word “jabs” crossed out and replaced with “jobs.” 

“Like Harriett [sic] Tubman’s efforts to defeat government-sponsored tyranny, RedBalloon will serve as a modern day underground railroad, connecting employers who want workers with employees who want to work, regardless of vaccination status,” reads one blog post by Crapuchettes, condemning the Biden administration’s emergency implementation of a vaccine mandate for large private businesses under OSHA.

RedBalloon launched in late July 2021, as the surging Delta variant and record-breaking labor shortages fed speculation that the federal government would soon impose vaccine mandates on private employers. At the same time, millions of Americans were either opposed to or reluctant to get vaccinated. Enter RedBalloon, which marketed itself to vaccine-ambivalent workers and like-minded bosses. Crapuchettes insists that he founded the site in the name of “freedom”—not from vaccine mandates in particular, but, as he puts it, “to be yourself” at work.  

“I started RedBalloon several weeks before the Biden administration made their proclamation about the mandates,” Crapuchettes told Fortune from the company’s headquarters in Moscow, Idaho, referring to the White House’s initial OSHA mandate announcement in September. “But obviously, it became an issue very, very quickly, and it is a large infringement on people’s ability to make their own choices.”

RedBalloon is one of a handful of online recruitment platforms that emerged this summer, along with No Vax Mandate, Vax Free Staffing, and NoVaxJobsUSA, that cater to unvaccinated job seekers. Together, these sites make up a new anti-vax labor market, and are positioned to leverage a polarized political landscape.

And sites like RedBalloon have clearly touched a nerve. Since its launch, Crapuchettes says, the site has attracted more than 1,000 businesses and some 400,000 individual users. Other boards are growing modest footprints of their own, like the “No Vax Mandate” job board hosted by far-right social network Gab, which amassed more than 68,000 followers in its first four months.

About half of U.S. workers say they don’t want their employer to require proof of vaccination, according to an October survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But it’s still unclear how much these job boards are actually influencing the broader business landscape. 

Stuart Robles, a partner at Boston-based mergers and acquisitions firm Briggs Capital, and coauthor of the book The New World of Entrepreneurship, says that business owners who bring polarizing personal viewpoints into professional conversations risk alienating themselves from the networks they rely on to do business. 

“We [at Briggs Capital] have noticed a trend, where anti-vax or anti-mask individuals will at some point make their views public at a meeting or on a phone call, and nobody in the room will say anything to oppose their opinions,” says Robles. “But very slowly, clients, vendors, partners begin drifting away from these individuals.”  

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate—which would require COVID-19 vaccination and testing for private employers with 100 or more employees, and weekly testing for unvaccinated workers—was temporarily blocked in November amid a string of legal challenges. It was reinstated by a federal appeals court on Dec. 17, with OSHA set to begin issuing fines for noncompliant businesses on Jan. 10. Despite Biden’s latest win, opposition to the rule remains fierce, and a Supreme Court challenge appears certain. 

In the meantime, vaccination protocols for private companies rest on the whims of states and local jurisdictions. 

“It is the Wild Wild West,” says Jay Starkman, founder and CEO of Engage PEO, an HR services company based in Hollywood, Fla. “Everybody can sort of do what they want, depending on the rules in their state.”

But many employers have already begun the scramble to set OSHA compliance protocols in place, even if their legal future is uncertain. And one upside of the OSHA mandate for companies that operate in multiple states is that it would alleviate the burden of trying to maintain compliance with several different protocols, which can be time intensive and costly.  

“It eliminates the issue from the CEO’s discretion,” Starkman says. 

But Starkman concedes that the current lack of a federal vaccine mandate presents an advantage for job boards catering to anti-vaxxers and the employers that are inclined to use them; nobody can be penalized for flouting rules that aren’t yet in place. However, he doubts that there are too many business owners who would risk the steep financial penalties of being found noncompliant with an active mandate—even if they’ve allowed themselves to indulge some degree of “political noise” in the process of attracting personnel. Robles agrees that those who give in to “the whims of tribalism” will see diminishing prospects.

“Right now they have a choir,” Robles says. “But that choir can disappear very quickly and turn into a Twitter mob against you. Any business owner that is, or was, very vocal and outspoken against the vaccine or masking can suddenly see their entire life’s achievements dissipate if what they said or did becomes chastised.”

At RedBalloon, Crapuchettes has recently added a directory of “non-woke businesses” to the job board—what he describes as a sort of “conservative yellow pages.”  

“I think conservatives are tired of their money and their labor going towards people who really hate their way of life,” he says.

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