Business groups opposed to vaccine passports — but resistance is softening

By: - August 4, 2021 7:03 am

The booster push will see New Jersey restart its vaccine megasites, which closed in June and July. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

New Jersey’s business leaders aren’t prepared to embrace vaccine mandate and passport policies similar to those announced in New York City Tuesday.

New York City is preparing to implement a broad mandate that will require customers and workers at indoor restaurants, gyms, and performance venues to show proof of receiving at least one vaccine dose starting Sept. 13.

Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, warns a similar decision on this side of the Hudson could exacerbate a worker shortage that she says has slowed New Jersey’s economic recovery.

“The result of that is you’re putting frontline workers in a situation of having to be adverse to their customers when the customers get frustrated,” Siekerka said. “And they’re going to walk off their jobs.”

Though the level of weekly unemployment claims has dropped from the record highs recorded early in the pandemic, the 7.3% unemployment rate state officials reported for last month remains at almost twice the 3.8% rate recorded in March 2020.

Tom Bracken, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, shared Siekerka’s worries about the impact vaccine passports could have on New Jersey’s climb toward a pre-pandemic economy.

“It all sounds good, and people can make a very valid case for why it would work, but you know, you have to really think through these things and think of all the different ramifications and the unintended consequences,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s been done yet.”

Gov. Phil Murphy has said he is “open-minded” on vaccine passports but has generally been cautious in enacting new virus restrictions even as case counts in New Jersey have grown to their highest since the tail end of the state’s second surge in late May (1,173 new cases as of Tuesday). On Monday he announced a new policy requiring workers in health care, corrections and elder care to get vaccinated by Sept. 7 or submit to weekly virus tests.

Despite his theoretical support for proof-of-vaccination cards, Murphy in May shared concerns voiced by Siekerka over workers’ role in enforcement. This was after the Centers for Disease Control issued since-outdated guidance allowing vaccinated individuals to go unmasked in most situations.

“If you’re in Shoprite, you’re in a hardware store, we can’t put the burden on the guy or the gal working there to try to be the arbiter of who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” he said then.

The governor kept the state’s indoor mask mandate in place for roughly three weeks after that guidance was issued.

Despite the unanimity of their opposition to vaccine passports, there was some space between the two business leaders on vaccine mandates. Bracken on Monday joined 36 local and regional chambers of commerce to announce a campaign encouraging members and their employees to vaccinate, and said “we have to think about mandates” if their push for vaccinations doesn’t work.

But Siekerka warned forcing people to get immunized could create rifts among employees.

“Business is going to be caught in a Catch-22, if you will,” she said. “They’re going to have, in some instances, workers saying, ‘I’m not coming back unless everyone’s vaccinated,’ while they’re going to have others saying, ‘if you mandate me to vaccinate, I’m not coming back.’”

Business groups may be forced to reckon with new restrictions if New Jersey’s vaccination rates, already among the highest in the nation, don’t rise further. About 58% of New Jersey’s population is fully vaccinated, thought that number rises when children under the age of 12 are excluded. Though there’s little to suggest a renewed shutdown, Murphy has consistently said that option and others remain “on the table.”

The resistance from the private sector, even with some softening on Bracken’s part, stands in stark contrast to the response from public sector unions that have already entered into talks with the administration about new vaccine rules.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees New Jersey Council 63, which represents workers impacted by Murphy’s Monday announcement, said the administration had agreed to bargain over the new vaccination rules, adding it hoped other employers would follow suit.

The Communications Workers of America’s New Jersey branch, which represents more than 40,000 state employees and is the largest public-sector union in the state, has adopted a similarly welcoming posture.

“We look forward to working with the Murphy administration and having cooperative discussions to ensure public health, while also respecting bargaining,” said Fran Ehret, the union’s state director.

Both unions have endorsed Murphy’s re-election bid.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.