SCHENECTADY — GE workers are no longer required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 after a U.S. District Judge in Georgia blocked the implementation of a federal vaccine mandate on Tuesday.
In a letter to GE employees issued Wednesday and obtained by The Daily Gazette, GE’s Chief Human Resources Officer Kevin Cox said GE was pausing the vaccine requirement it issued in October as a result of a judge’s preliminary injunction temporarily stopping the implementation of Executive Order 14042: Ensuring Adequate COVID Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors.
GE was requiring all employees be fully vaccinated or receive a medical or religious exemption by Wednesday or face termination.
About 200 Schenectady GE workers, who were primarily IUE-CWA Local 301 members, staged a walkout in October protesting GE’s mandate, which was put in place because GE is a federal contractor and the company needed to comply with the executive order, according to a GE spokesperson, who also confirmed the current pause via email on Wednesday.
Christopher DePoalo, Local 301’s business agent, called this week’s mandate pause a victory.
“I think it’s a win,” DePoalo said. “Hopefully we can move forward.”
In addition to not needing to get the shot, GE employees are also no longer required to upload their vaccination status into GE’s digital vaccination tracking portal, Cox’s letter states.
Employees are still required to wear masks indoors unless they can maintain at least 6 feet of social distance, according to the letter.
DePoalo said many of his members are pleased with the pause.
“Most of them are happy that the choice is going to be theirs,” he said.
Still, DePoalo said he was approached by a handful of members on Wednesday who expressed their frustration at having gotten the shot against their will in order to comply with the mandate, only to now learn the mandate has been suspended.
“A lot of members feel kind of burned,” DePoalo said. “They were frustrated that they had to go out and get the shot to save their jobs.”
DePoalo declined to provide an estimate of how many of his roughly 700 members of machinists, winders, electricians and other professionals that build power generators for GE became vaccinated as a result of the mandate. In October, DePoalo estimated that roughly 60% of his membership was vaccinated before the mandate was in place. GE also declined to provide vaccination numbers, with a spokesperson saying only, “Prior to the injunction, we had been on pace with our compliance targets.”
Nationwide, vaccine mandates have proved effective at increasing vaccination rates. For instance, Tyson Foods boasts a 96% vaccination rate following a mandate. And it’s been widely reported that employers ranging from United Airlines to the NBA have vaccination rates above 90% following mandates.
DePoalo said his members have recently been more concerned about the implications of GE’s November announcement that it was splitting into three companies than the members have been about the vaccine mandate.
“The mandate was almost put on the backburner,” DePoalo said, explaining his members have been primarily concerned with keeping their jobs in Schenectady.
Now, DePoalo said, the mandate is just another issue giving his workers uncertainty. “Anytime you have question marks, people don’t know how to take it.”
Biden issued an executive order Sept. 9 requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to comply with workplace safety guidelines developed by a federal task force. That task force subsequently issued guidelines that new, renewed or extended contracts include a clause requiring employees to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 18. That meant those receiving a two-dose vaccine must get their second shot by Jan. 4.
Limited exceptions were allowed for medical or religions reasons. The requirements would apply to millions of employees of federal contractors, which include defense companies and airlines.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge R. Stan Baker, in Augusta, Georgia, issued a stay to bar enforcement of the mandate nationwide. The stay applies across the U.S. because one of those challenging the order is the trade group Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., whose members do business nationwide. Baker found that the states are likely to succeed in their claim that Biden exceeded authorization from Congress when he issued the requirement in September.
A White House spokeswoman said the Justice Department would continue to defend the mandate.
Further legal action is expected, but when the matter will be resolved is unknown.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.