The issue of workplace safety and COVID-19 vaccination has been largely absent from the national conversation, drowned out by noisy protests over vaccination rules. Now the task of re-centering workplace safety has fallen to an unlikely source, the longstanding family-owned workwear company Carhartt.
Workplace safety was a hot topic during the first months of the pandemic in 2020, when many employees were forced to work in close contact with the public despite the danger of exposure to a new and lethal virus for which no vaccine was yet available.
Many companies scrambled to erect barriers and provide other protections, including rules for masks and social distance. Still, former President Trump persistently misdirected the public on COVID-19 safety all throughout his final year in office, even to the point of mocking people who choose to protect themselves with a face mask. Egged on by the previous president and his high profile supporters, some took it upon themselves to protest local businesses that were desperately trying to protect their workers and customers.
Trump further muddied the public waters by inventing and amplifying a voter fraud canard that has grown in force to the present day, effectively rendering a once-in-a-century public health crisis into a political football.
By the time a COVID-19 vaccine became widely available, Trump was out of office but the damage had been done. Journalist Sergio Olmos is among those noting that the anti-vaccination movement has made a habit of comparing its followers to Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, while also attracting members of the Proud Boys and other white supremacist groups linked to the January 6, 2021 attempt to install Trump for a second term by force.
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Against this backdrop, businesses that seek to impose vaccine mandates on their employees now have to contend with violent white supremacism in addition to fending away claims that personal freedom supersedes workplace safety.
That is the position now occupied by Carharrt. Earlier this week the company reaffirmed its vaccine requirement for employees, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a national mandate ordered by President Biden.
As widely reported by BBC News and other media, some of the companies covered by the Biden mandate reversed their position on vaccine requirements after the Supreme Court delivered its ruling.
However, Carhartt stood firm. The company established a vaccine mandate last year and stuck with it, even though a group of employees protested its mandate last fall.
In an internal memo to staff this week, chief executive Mark Valade wrote:
"While we appreciate that there may be differing views, workplace safety is an area where we and the union that represents our associates cannot compromise. An unvaccinated workforce is both a people and business risk that our company is unwilling to take.”
Social media was quickly peppered with calls for a boycott from the anti-vaccination side, but their voices have been outweighed by Carhartt supporters. In addition to establishing a reputation as a trusted supplier of workwear, the Carhartt brand is also popular as fashionwear, especially in Europe.
It’s too early to tell, but it’s possible that the boycott will backfire. As if on cue, on Monday WWD reporter Brittany Loggins noted that actress Julia Fox sported a pair of $50 Carhartt jeans during Paris Fashion Week, which anyone can order online for themselves.
“The relaxed-fit style features a double layer on the front, which is intended to protect your knees if you’re working in the silhouette (or, you know, attending a fashion show),” enthused Loggins. “But even as durable as the pants are, they should be also quite comfortable thanks to Carhartt’s Rugged Flex stretch technology, featuring 1 percent of spandex to ensure full range of motion.”
Due to its crossover appeal to hands-on workers and fashionistas alike, Carhartt has gained a reputation for crossing the political divide. That is about to be put to the test. The calls for a boycott may fade away, but the Supreme Court decision kicked the vaccine mandate ball back to the jurisdiction of states, and that puts companies including Carhartt in the thick of both the anti-vaccination movement and the white supremacist threat.
The company is headquartered in Michigan, where white supremacists tested their ability to invade legislative spaces by force when they stormed the state capital in April 2020, ostensibly to protest a COVID-19 mask order issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Last year more than a dozen Michigan men were also charged with plotting to kill the Governor. The plot has been described by the West Point Terrorism Center as an indication of the “continuing evolution and complexity of the domestic violent extremism (DVE) threat landscape as well as its decentralized and amorphous nature.”
In addition, two of Carhartt’s facilities are located in states where elected officials have followed Trump’s lead of misdirection on COVID-19 safety.
Carhartt operates a cutting factory and distribution center in Hopkins County, Kentucky, where Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s aggressive stance on COVID-19 prevention has been thwarted by the Republican-controlled state legislature. The company also operates a sewing factory in Camden, Tennessee, a state where Republican legislators have also worked to stymie action on COVID-19.
Carhartt is not out of the woods yet. However, its status as a high-profile employer has insulated it against criticism from state and local officials who have established a track record of following the former president’s lead on COVID-19 misdirection.
The company's strong stance should send a clear signal to other corporate citizens that purport to prioritize workplace safety. When jobs are on the line, public officials who would otherwise support anti-vaccination voices may choose to sit on the sidelines.
The anti-vaccination movement has placed many companies at risk, and the intertwining of violent white supremacist activism has only made matters worse. Business leaders can choose to cave in to the bullies. Or, like Mark Valade, they can take the opportunity to identify their brand with democratic principles and the foundational values of a civic society, by responding appropriately and responsibly to a public health crisis.
Image credit: Carhartt via Facebook
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.