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Google becomes first major tech company to mandate vaccines as delta wave climbs

The company’s CEO Sundar Pichai says vaccines are the best hope of getting back to business as usual.

Google becomes first major tech company to mandate vaccines as delta wave climbs
[Source Photo: Artem/iStock]

Google is the first major tech company to require its employees to get vaccinated before returning to work, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a Wednesday note to employees.

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Citing growing levels of infections in much of the country due to the delta variant, Pichai says the new policy will roll out to U.S. offices in the coming weeks, and to more far-flung regions in the coming months. The rule will apply only to locations where vaccines are readily available, Pichai wrote.

The company is also extending its voluntary work-from-home plan until October 18.

“[W]e recognize that many Googlers are seeing spikes in their communities caused by the delta variant and are concerned about returning to the office,” Pichai writes. “This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it.”

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Pichai says employees with “special circumstances” can apply to work from home through the end of 2021. Expanded Carer’s Leave will be extended through the end of the year for parents and caregivers.

But Google’s announcement leaves some glaring questions unanswered. What happens if an employee refuses to get vaccinated, which would then make it impossible for them to comply Google’s back-to-office plan? Could the employee be fired? Is there such thing as a “philosophical objector”? How does Google expect employees to prove they’ve been vaccinated, especially as any reasonably tech-savvy employee can fake a vaccine card?

Fast Company asked the company these questions, but it declined to answer on the record. Pichai does say in the memo that the company intends to “share more details on an exceptions process for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other protected reasons.”

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Google says it’ll give employees at least 30 days advance notice before transitioning to its plan for returning to the office.

According to that plan, Google will require most employees to return to the office at least three days a week, but it will also let employees work entirely remotely for up to four weeks out of the year. And it will let more of its employees request to work remotely full-time.

Post-pandemic, Google believes that about 60% of its employees will be in an office three days a week, with another 20% working in new office locations, and 20% working from home.

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Delta blues

Google certainly isn’t the only big tech company that’s had to delay or rewrite its script for a smooth return to the office. The delta variant has proven to be a nasty bug, not only in its ability to sicken but in its ability to spread and find new hosts.

Companies don’t want to push fearful workers, nor do they want their employees getting sick. Even fully vaccinated workers risk contracting the delta variant. Even more dangerous is the fact that those same workers can carry the virus and potentially infect unvaccinated coworkers at the office.

So far, many tech companies are relying on the “honor system” as a weak guarantee that employees will return to the office vaccinated or at least regularly tested. One tech recruiter told me that at some tech companies, it’s considered intrusive to even ask an employee’s vax status. Google seems to be saying that the honor system isn’t good enough, and that politeness isn’t as important as protecting a workforce against a serious health threat.

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Tipping point?

Google’s vaccination requirement may, for the moment, be unique within the tech world, but it’s starting to become more prevalent within wider society. As a whole, Americans may be losing patience with vaccine deniers.

A spate of evidence to that effect emerged just this week. California governor Gavin Newsom said Monday his state will soon require state employees and all healthcare workers to provide proof of vaccination, or submit to being tested for the virus once a week. On the same day, a group of more than 500 San Francisco bars said they will require bar-goers and diners to prove vaccination or provide a negative COVID test result before entering a member establishment. The state of New York says it will make vaccination or regular COVID testing mandatory for all state employees. And all patient-facing front line healthcare workers in state-run hospitals will have to be vaccinated.

There’s action at the federal level too. The Veterans Administration said this week it will require all of its medical employees, including VHA facilities staff, to be vaccinated. And President Biden said that his administration may require all federal employees to be vaccinated. “That’s under consideration right now,” Biden said at a press briefing Tuesday.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Tuesday it’s advising Americans who are fully vaccinated to go back to wearing masks in indoor public places in regions where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly. As delta threatens more communities and forces more employers to rethink their back-to-office plans, we may begin to see more tech companies following in Google’s footsteps.

This story has been updated with Google’s response to questions and further context.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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