Columbia Sportswear exec: Vaccine mandate will level the playing field

·4 min read

An executive from Columbia Sportswear, based in Portland, Ore., told lawmakers on Tuesday that the company is in favor of a federal vaccine mandate, saying that it would provide clear, uniform standards and help the company keep employees from defecting to workplaces that don’t require vaccines or testing.

Last month, Biden called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard that would require private businesses with at least 100 employees to put vaccine mandates in place and ensure unvaccinated workers undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

“A federal mandate is needed. We do not believe it is a question of more regulation for business, but rather less,” Richelle Luther, senior vice president, corporate affairs, and chief human resources officer at Columbia Sportswear said Tuesday during a House Education and Labor Committee hearing. “A quilt of local laws and approaches created vastly more regulation for our business, more uncertainty or risk, and more inefficiency.”

Columbia, which employs about 8,000 globally, shut down its more than 100 retail locations in the U.S. at the start of the pandemic and sent the employees at its headquarters home, according to Luther. The company anticipates bringing its corporate employees back to the office by the end of March 2022.

But it started reopening its retail locations much faster. Yet when it came time to have stores open their doors again, Columbia experienced challenges trying to reopen at least one store because its location straddled two counties that were in different stages of reopening.

“One of the biggest struggles in the last two years is that we are dealing with an ever changing patchwork of health and safety regulations that in many cases have differed not just by state, but by county,” Luther said.

Columbia’s CEO, whom Luther called a “vocal proponent of vaccinations,” has encouraged employees to get vaccinations by authorizing paid time off to receive the shot, as well as offering catastrophic paid leave if an employee has an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

The company also brought mobile clinics to its Portland headquarters and to distribution centers to make it easy for workers to get vaccinated. Yet Luther said these efforts have not yet been sufficient, adding that the company lost its first employee to COVID recently.  

“We were on the brink of mandating vaccinations for our employees when President Biden announced a vaccine mandate,” Luther said, adding the company celebrated the announcement.

Columbia sees the mandate as a “tool” to help the company achieve full vaccination without losing employees. “In this labor market, we appreciate the government support in leveling the playing field to enable us to do the right thing,” she said. “If all companies mandate vaccinations as a condition of employment, we will be able to retain our valued employees and keep our company in business. We don't want to lose our employees to locations or companies that do not have vaccination mandates.”

Yet Luther didn’t shy away from acknowledging that implementing a vaccine mandate will be complex. Specifically, Luther said guidance is needed on how to process accommodations, particularly for religious exemptions. The company is also grappling with how to implement testing in its stores. 

“It will be logistically challenging and extraordinarily expensive,” Luther noted. Indeed, experts have estimated that if employers are forced to financially bear the brunt, the costs could be in the millions per week. Testing itself ranges between $12 and $150 per test, depending on the type of test required, where the business is purchasing it from, and how the test is administered and processed.

Yet, Luther said, Columbia is committed to the process. “We need to come together to protect public health and safety. We can do that by getting everyone vaccinated.”

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