Widely Known Alaska Brand Mandates COVID-19 Vaccine for Employees

James Thompson founded Alaska Industrial Hardware (AIH) in 1959, the same year Alaska became the 49th State of the Union and has, over the years, grown into a widely known Alaskan brand.

With how disruptive the COVID-19 pandemic has been to the Alaskan economy, employers appear eager to get their workforce back to “normal” as soon as possible — and that desire has raised questions about vaccinations and businesses who mandate them for their employees.

AIH, in a letter to employees, notified their workforce last month that, in partnership with Bering Straits Native Corporate (BSNC), the Southcentral Foundation (SCF) had extended COVID-19 vaccination availability to employees of Alaska Native Corporations. BSNC acquired AIH in August 2015.

The letter says COVID-19 vaccinations are “necessary for BSNC’s long-term continuity, the health and well-being of our employees, and an important public health and safety measure toward ending the pandemic,” noting in its letter that the CDC has determined that “COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective in preventing the spread of the virus.”

AIH letter to employees March 18, 2021

BSNC’s Board of Directors recently mandated that “all employees be vaccinated” once the vaccine is available, unless “a reasonable accommodation is approved,” the letter states. 

AIH’s letter also informs employees that if they are not in compliance with the new policy by August 1, 2021, they “will be placed on unpaid leave until their employment status is determined by the Human Resources department, pursuant to provisions of the policy.”

When contacted to verify the authenticity of the letter, an AIH employee confirmed its validity and referred me to AIH President / CEO Terry Shurtleff. Attempts to reach Mr. Shurtleff for comment on the mandated vaccination policy were unsuccessful and it is unknown whether any AIH employees have expressed concern to the company about the new policy.

The company’s letter to employees has recently begun circulating on Alaskan social media, with many taking to the business’ Facebook page to comment that they were withdrawing support for the company over the new vaccination policy. One Facebook user wrote that mandating “non-FDA approved vaccines” is cause for them to no longer support the company.

Others who have commented on AIH’s Facebook page wrote they hoped someone would sue the company over the policy, while others wrote that the policy violated individual freedoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective,” having “met FDA’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization (EUA),” and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suggests that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their workers, as long as employees don’t have a disability or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from getting vaccinated.

Debbie Kaminer, a law professor at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business, told MarketWatch last year that “Employers have significantly more freedom when it’s an employer just enacting its own policy, and it’s not a government-mandated policy — because constitutional restrictions simply do not apply to private employers.”

That’s where a gray area comes in: there is no roadmap or precedent for an emergency-approved vaccine designed for the general population.

Other legal experts, while agreeing that employers can mandate vaccinations for employees, think that incentivizing the COVID-19 vaccine could be a less tumultuous road forward for companies, — and some employers have announced that they will encourage, rather than mandate, employees to get vaccinated — offering cash, paid time off or extra vacation time to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Kroger announced in February that a $100 vaccine payment would be offered to all associates who receive the full manufacturer recommended dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition to the new vaccine payment, Kroger also announced an additional $50 million investment to thank and reward associates across its 35-state footprint, including a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points for hourly frontline grocery, supply chain, manufacturing, pharmacy and call center associates according to a statement released on its website.

Other companies that have chosen to incentivize the COVID-19 vaccine include McDonald’s, Aldi’s, Target and American Airlines, perhaps choosing to avoid a legal fight which might be initiated by those who feel that mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for employees is a step too far.