Auto plants emerge as next battleground in U.S. vaccination drive

Insurance costs

The motivation isn’t unalloyed altruism. Unvaccinated employees could increase insurance premiums for automakers already struggling with rising health-care costs, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. And it could add to the cost of care when people get sick, she said.

Automakers already foot a hefty medical bill. Before the last round of contract negotiations, Ford said it would spend more than $1 billion a year on workers’ health benefits.

So far, thousands of people have gotten shots through workplace campaigns, but automakers can’t track vaccination rates at plants because they can’t count people who get shots outside their network.

Scott Flatford, who works at a metal-castings plant owned by Stellantis in Kokomo, Ind., guessed that about 75 percent of the almost 1,300 people there have been vaccinated.

A minority flatly refuses.

That jibes with national surveys, which estimate as many as 20 percent of Americans are set against taking the vaccine. In Kokomo, it’s partly a macho thing, Flatford said. Many people against the vaccine are staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump who don’t trust government, and feel they’re healthy enough to survive the virus, he said.

They also resent wearing masks and having plexiglass separating them during lunch breaks.

A 56-year-old Army veteran, Flatford was voted out as president of his union local in August. One reason: He didn’t fight against a mask mandate.

“If they wanted us to wear moonsuits in there, we should never argue against added safety,” Flatford said. “I don’t get my feelings hurt. I’ll try to run again.”

‘No test monkey’

Andra Davis, a materials handler who has worked at Chrysler in suburban Detroit for 26 years, finally surrendered to his mother’s pleas that he get the shot, even though he hates needles. He also had to overcome mistrust thanks to past medical abuses, like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in Alabama.

“I don’t want to be no test monkey, no mule,” said Davis, who is Black.

Such reticence reflects broader trends: Uptake among African-Americans who were hesitant is increasing as more people are vaccinated without side effects, Resnicow said. But many evangelical Christians, libertarians wary of government authority and “purists” who don’t want anything foreign in their bodies aren’t budging.

Employers can, in general, require workers to get vaccinated, so long as they provide exceptions for disabilities or religious objections. But most big employers have encouraged Covid vaccinations without ordering them.

Mike Speetzen, CEO of Polaris Inc, which makes snowmobiles and off-road adventure vehicles in 13 plants across the U.S., said he isn’t mandating the vaccine. Instead, he’s sponsoring off-site clinics and giving people time off to make an appointment.

“We’ve tried to do everything we can,” Speetzen said in an interview. “Our exposure rates in the company mirror what’s going on in the community, so it’s tough to control that.”

Employers are worried about being sued, said Catherine Fisk, a University of California at Berkeley professor specializing in labor and employment law. The suits could come from employees objecting to the vaccine or those who object to working alongside unvaccinated colleagues.

“Somebody is going to be angry, no matter which way they come down, so I think they’re waiting as long as possible to commit themselves,” Fisk said.

Waiting might not be a bad thing. Urging vaccinations rather than requiring them can provide time for the hesitant to change their minds, said Michelle Mello, professor of law and medicine at Stanford University.

It worked on Nevils, who cracked wise about his Jeep colleagues’ conspiratorial fears as he strolled into the union-hall clinic. “I’m here to get a computer chip in my arm,” he proclaimed.

Minutes later, he had done his part to revive U.S. manufacturing.

Automotive News contributed to this report.

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