Starbucks and other huge companies scramble to change vaccine policies after Supreme Court ruling

January 21, 2022, 6:45 PM UTC

Starbucks announced this week that it’s rolling back its Covid-19 rules that required all employees to either get vaccinated by Feb. 9 or submit to weekly testing. This decision comes just days after the Supreme Court struck down a mandate by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that required all companies with 100 employees or more to develop comprehensive and mandatory vaccination policies, affecting over 84 million Americans. 

In an unsigned opinion, the majority wrote: “Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life — simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock — would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.”

The ruling has left companies scrambling to determine how to best protect their workers during the ongoing pandemic.

President Biden responded by calling on business leaders to “institute vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers, and communities.”

But response from corporate America has been mixed.

Apparel company Carhartt, which employs approximately 3,000 workers in the U.S., has decided to continue with its own mandate, which instigated a boycott by conservative consumers. 

“Carhartt fully understands and respects the varying opinions on this topic, and we are aware some of our associates do not support this policy,” the company said in a statement shared with Fortune. “However, we stand behind our decision because we believe vaccines are necessary to protect our workforce.” 

The company also acknowledged that the “vast majority” of its workers are already fully or partially vaccinated.

Other businesses that had previously committed to vaccination requirements have since reneged following the Supreme Court decision. Amtrak rolled back its decision in December when the administration’s mandate was first halted in a district court, while General Electric announced last Friday it would suspend its own requirements. 

Starbucks, which employs over 200,000 workers in the U.S., tried to avoid the political controversy of adjusting its COVID rules with careful wording in its statement announcing the changing requirement.

John Culver, the company’s group president, North America and chief operating officer, released a new statement on Tuesday that deflected decision-making power away from itself: “We respect the Court’s ruling and will comply.”

With the mandate struck down, he offered that Starbucks continues to believe in its “spirit and intent.”

Angel Krempa, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks location in Buffalo, N.Y., sees company’s decision to not enforce vaccine or testing requirements as a way for it to cater to its politically diverse customer base rather than implement a plan that would best protect its workers. 

“They put themselves out [there] as a company that’s very pro partner and pro their employees, but they still care more about those customer connections. That matters way more than our safety,” she says. 

In his most recent memo, Culver wrote to the company’s employees: “Thank you for doing your part to help stop the spread of COVID-19, and to ensure that Starbucks remains a safe and familiar place where our partners and customers can continue to safely build connections with one another.” 

That focus on customer connections is frustrating, says Krempa, who has been instructed to ignore her county’s local mask mandate when confronted with unmasked customers. “I am not allowed to refuse service if they’re not wearing a mask and refuse to put one on,” she says.

Publicly dropping its vaccination and testing requirements while simultaneously reiterating its belief in the mandate’s thrust seems to Krempa like a clear effort by Starbucks to abstain from the explicit politicization around the vaccine — an effort that is likely to become the norm as companies move forward in the absence of a federal mandate.

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