In the Press

Read the latest features, news updates, and press releases about ZT Corporate.

‘I don’t want blood on my hands’: Delta forces Houston companies to change back-to-office plans

‘I don’t want blood on my hands’: Delta forces Houston companies to change back-to-office plans

Since COVID-19 vaccines became available in January, Taseer Badar, chief executive of ZT Corporate, has wanted to require his employees to get vaccinated.

His human resources department encouraged him to wait. But when President Joe Biden announced last Thursday that federal workers would need COVID-19 shots or submit to regular testing, Badar saw his chance. He announced the same day that the private equity firm’s 1,500 employees in Houston would need to get at least their first shot by Friday or find new places to work.

“Frankly speaking, I don’t want blood on my hands,” Badar said. “I don’t want that on my conscience when I have the ability to do this and get them the education that they need to get it done.”

As the highly infectious delta variant brings another wave of COVID-19 cases, concentrated among the unvaccinated, companies in Houston and across the country are reassessing return-to-office, vaccination and mask policies. Few local companies appear to be following the example of ZT Corporate and major national companies such as Google, Tyson Foods, Disney, Walmart and Microsoft in requiring employees to get COVID vaccinations. But some are reconsidering expectations that the pandemic was soon to be beaten — and revising the plans that went with those expectations.

Houston-based human resources company G&A Partners delayed its return-to-office plans until early next year considering the recent rise in cases, said Dave Berndt, associate general counsel for the company, which has around 500 employees nationally. The retailer Francesca’s reinstated its mask requirement for all corporate, retail and warehouse employees, said Stephen Harwell, Francesca’s vice president of corporate operations, supply chain and logistics.

BP, the British oil major. last week began requiring employees in its Houston offices to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status, following the recent mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death are rising rapidly across the country, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. In Houston, for example, COVID hospitalizations increased for the twentieth consecutive day on Tuesday, rising to 2,531. While that’s still below the spikes of last summer, the trajectory of cases suggests another wave. Some 45.5  percent of Harris County residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 50.5 percent nationally.

The constant shifts in case counts, recommendations and mandates have made it difficult for employers to set polices and stick with them as they try to bring normalcy to the workplace. Exxon Mobil and Sysco are staying the course on their current vaccination and masking policies, despite the changed conditions. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan still plans to have all its 2,100 local employees back in their Houston offices by September, according to a spokeswoman.

In the Houston area, worker vaccination requirements have primarily been limited to large hospital systems. Houston Methodist. Baylor College of Medicine and Memorial Hermann have all made COVID-19 vaccinations a condition of employment.

Wide latitude

While Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies, including public schools, from mandating COVID vaccines and mask wearing, private employers have wide latitude imposing such requirements, said Jennifer Trulock, a partner with Baker Botts who heads the law firm’s labor and employment practice. Federal courts and regulatory agencies have routinely ruled in favor of companies requiring vaccines, so long as they offer medical and religious exemptions.

“Right now, I don’t think there’s any question the federal government has made it an easy thing for employers to mandate vaccines,” Trulock said. “If someone says, ‘I don’t want vaccines, I don’t believe they work, I don’t want a foreign substance in my body,’ they don’t really have legal ground to stand on.”

Employers, however, may be reluctant to introduce mandatory vaccinations for fear of losing staff, especially in the current job market where workers are in high demand and short supply. Companies could run the risk of losing some of their best talent if they roll out a mandatory vaccine policy, Trulock said, and their top performers would rather work somewhere that doesn’t require the shots.

Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta, CEO of the restaurant company Landry’s and owner of the Houston Rockets, said he’d like his employees to be vaccinated, but estimates he would lose around 18 percent of his employee base — nearly one in five workers — if he required vaccinations.

That’s a risk Badar with ZT Corporate is willing to take.

99.999 percent

He said the company’s mandate is in line with the safety protocols the company has had in place since the beginning of the pandemic, when it created a private testing program. Employees at the firm, which has holdings in the health care, finance and automotive industries, were called back to work early as their jobs were deemed essential, Badar said. The new vaccination program is the next step to keeping employees safe, he said, and will help move the needle in getting get more Americans vaccinated.

“I’m very compassionate, but people have had plenty of time look at it,” Badar said. “Look at what’s going on with the Delta variant. It’s so contagious, but you see the CDC come out and say 99.999 percent of vaccinated people haven’t had a deadly case. We think this is helpful to get the stragglers who could cause issues for their families and others in the office.”

This story has been updated to correct vaccination rates.

Amanda Drane, Paul Takahashi and Rebecca Carballo contributed.

shelby.webb@chron.com

Houston

1535 West Loop S
Suite 450
Houston, TX 77027

P: 713-627-2000
F: 713-231-2131

New York

641 Lexington Ave
18th Floor
New York, NY 10022

P: 212-644-4343
F: 718-679-9797

Los Angeles

8275 Beverly Blvd.
Suite 300
Los Angeles, CA 90048

P: 323-352-0176
F: 713-600-3456

Pearland

11233 Shadow Creek Pkwy
Suite 313
Pearland, TX 77584

P: 832-230-8100
F: 832-230-8101

Contact Us
Social Share Buttons and Icons powered by Ultimatelysocial