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Google and Facebook mandate vaccines for all employees returning to offices

The announcements come as the delta variant has caused coronavirus cases to rise in every state, with some of the highest numbers in states with low vaccination rates.
Image: A person walks into Google's New York offices on March 5, 2018.
A person walks into Google's New York offices on March 5, 2018.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

Google, Facebook and Lyft will require employees returning to offices to be vaccinated against Covid-19, the companies said in separate announcements Wednesday.

"Anyone coming to work on our campuses will need to be vaccinated. We’re rolling this policy out in the U.S. in the coming weeks and will expand to other regions in the coming months," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a memo, adding that "getting vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep ourselves and our communities healthy in the months ahead."

A few hours after Google's memo was released, Facebook made a similar announcement.

"As our offices reopen, we will be requiring anyone coming to work at any of our US campuses to be vaccinated," Lori Goler, Facebook's vice president of people, said. "How we implement this policy will depend on local conditions and regulations. We will have a process for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons and will be evaluating our approach in other regions as the situation evolves. We continue to work with experts to ensure our return to office plans prioritize everyone's health and safety."

Pichai also said Google is extending its work-from-home policy for all of its offices globally until Oct. 18. The company previously planned to reopen its offices for employees in mid-September. Pichai’s note said if Google does plan to change course again, it will notify employees at least 30 days before its offices are fully reopened.

Some Google employees applauded Pichai’s decision to delay plans to reopen offices for employees and require vaccines for those who do come back.

“Definitely the right thing to do,” said one Google engineer who asked to remain anonymous because they are not permitted to speak to the media.

Others agreed it was the right call and added that pushing the return date even further back would be helpful for employees trying to plan their lives in the coming months, as questions about child care and moving back to places near an office loom for some.

“I think logistically for employees, it would have been easier to just push to January,” said another Google employee who asked to remain anonymous. “I suspect they’ll end up doing that anyway.”

Ride-hailing company Lyft also announced changes to its back-to-work plans, including a requirement for employees coming into the office to be vaccinated. CEO Logan Green told employees the new return date would be pushed back to Feb 2.

The new plans come as the highly infectious delta variant has caused coronavirus cases to rise in every state, with some of the highest numbers in states with low vaccination rates. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance to recommend that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas where coronavirus cases are on the rise.

Earlier this month, Apple pushed back its date for employees to return to the office to October, a month later than the company’s previous plan for return. Apple has not told its workforce that they will need to be vaccinated to return to its campus.

Google and Facebook join a growing number of companies and public agencies that are starting to draw a harder line on vaccinations. President Joe Biden plans to announce Thursday that all federal workers need to be vaccinated or they will be subject to frequent testing.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was the first federal agency to require employees to be vaccinated, with a deadline of eight weeks from now. The move follows the death of four unvaccinated employees, three of which were from the delta variant, the agency said.

On Monday, New York City announced all city workers would be required to get vaccinated or be tested weekly, one of the largest employers in the country to make such an announcement. California announced a similar move for its state workers, with Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeting: "We’re experiencing a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Everyone that can get vaccinated—should."

While vaccine mandates by private employers are patchy and far from widespread, an increasing number of employers in the private sector are considering vaccine mandates for their employees, said Bhushan Sethi, global people and organization co-leader at consulting agency PwC. He’s seen the conversation rising among his clients.

“The variants, the low vaccine rates and employee concerns are forcing companies to think through whether or not they mandate vaccines to employees returning to offices,” he said in an email.

The topic is divisive and political, within the workplace and beyond. But rising cases and a narrowing timeline are forcing the question.

“They are weighing factors such as inclusion, privacy and retention, with factors such as employee safety and confidence, which can impact productivity and performance,” Sethi said.

Several financial institutions, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo are requiring that workers get vaccinated or assert their vaccination status before returning to work. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are both requiring vaccines for all new employees, and United said earlier in the year that it would consider making vaccinations compulsory.

"If others go along and are willing to start to mandate vaccines, you should probably expect United to be amongst the first wave of companies that do it," CEO Scott Kirby said in January.

A patchwork of other companies across industries and roles have implemented versions of vaccine mandates.

Houston Methodist Hospital is mandating vaccines for all employees, both existing and new hires. Meatpacker JBS is requiring vaccines for corporate employees. Trendsetting New York City restaurant Eleven Madison Park is requiring vaccines for some open positions. Lastique International Corp., a plastics distributor and recycler in Louisville, Kentucky, began requiring vaccines for existing and new employees. Salesforce has mandated vaccines since April for any employee voluntarily returning to the office.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post announced that employees would need to be vaccinated. The Post’s publisher said in an email to staff that employee concern over the rise of variants drove the move.

“In considering the serious health issues and genuine safety concerns of so many Post employees, I believe the plan is the right one,” the Post’s publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., said.

A May survey of 660 employers by global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson found 72 percent would not require employees to be vaccinated. But the firm told NBC News in an email that some of those employers are telling their consultants that they're reconsidering vaccine mandates as the delta variant spreads.

Employers can legally require employees to be vaccinated with two exceptions, said Tulane University employment law professor Joel Friedman. Employees protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act and those with religious exemptions may request a waiver.

Disabled employees and those with religious exemptions “are entitled to a reasonable accommodation by the employer that does not amount to an undue hardship,” Friedman said in an email. “Perhaps that is requiring masks and frequent testing.”

In late May, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission substantially updated and released detailed guidance for employers to explicitly permit workplaces to require vaccines. Previously, there was a legal gray area of whether there could be requirements for vaccines that hadn’t received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Full FDA approval of the Covid vaccines could come as early as August or September, in time for the school year, Biden said during a town hall last week. Prior to that, the expectation was that the ongoing review could last into 2022.