Nike lifts Covid mandate, igniting harsh criticism from employees on both sides of the vaccine debate

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Nike's world headquarters
Nike’s world headquarters

  • Nike last week said employees no longer need to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • Nike’s Covid mandate was well supported by employees, according to an internal survey. 
  • As companies rescind mandates, some have been challenged in court. 

Nike’s decision to drop its Covid-vaccine mandate has some current and former employees up in arms.

The reversal, first reported by The Oregonian, is being criticized by employees who supported the original mandate as well as those who lost their jobs just months ago for failing to comply. 

“It feels clear to me that Nike doesn’t value their disabled workforce and doesn’t care to take responsibility for creating an inclusive work environment,” said a current employee who is worried about workplace exposure.

In an internal email explaining the decision, Joe Marsico, Nike’s vice president of resilience and chief security officer, said, “At this stage in the pandemic, the CDC and other public health authorities have acknowledged that community spread is possible even when people are fully vaccinated.” 

“When our vaccination policy was implemented, vaccination was critical in preventing community spread,” he added. 

Nike employees were overwhelmingly in favor of the vaccine mandate. About 78% of Nike workers who responded to a late 2021 company survey said they were “proud” of Nike’s position on vaccines

The mandate reversal comes as companies balance the needs of various employees with a “new normal” where  Americans learn to live with Covid. 

Nike still “strongly” encourages employees to get vaccinated, according to Marisco’s email. 

More companies, including archrival Adidas, are also starting to ease mandates. 

Nike did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Employees interviewed chose to remain anonymous for fear of retribution or not being allowed to speak with the media. Their identities are known to Insider. 

‘Not sure where this leaves those of us who were fired only months ago’

It’s unclear how many people Nike terminated for not complying with its vaccine mandate. While some employees were given exemptions by Nike for religious and other reasons, others are upset about being fired over a policy that no longer exists. 

“Having been denied accommodation and ultimately terminated due to the vaccine mandate, it’s disappointing to see they abruptly rescinded their mandate now after letting good and loyal employees like me go without any severance or insurance support,” said a former employee who worked at Nike more than 15 years. “In the end, I’m not sure where this leaves those of us who were fired only months ago due to a mandate that is now fully reversed.”

Some US corporations are being sued over vaccine mandates. A group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund is suing Disney over its vaccine mandate, which like Nike’s, required vaccination as a condition of employment. 

Nike has already been challenged in Oregon state court by a remote worker who was terminated and denied unemployment benefits for not complying with the policy. In August, an administrative law judge ruled in favor of the former employee. The judge overturned a decision by the Oregon Employment Department after Nike didn’t send a representative to a hearing.

“For them to rescind the mandate was great,” said another former employee who was terminated earlier this year. “But they’re not acknowledging they did anything wrong. No apologies. No nothing. No severance. That letter doesn’t even acknowledge the people they’ve hurt.”

Companies have the broad authority to mandate vaccines in their workplace, according to Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a UC Hastings law professor, and vaccine policy expert. Legal challenges to date over Covid-vaccine mandates haven’t been widely successful. 

“Very few of the lawsuits went anywhere,” she said in an email to Insider. “And I expect this to continue: I expect courts to continue to support business general authority in requiring vaccines, but they may — as they have in the past — allow lawsuits for bad faith (or legal errors) in relation to religious accommodation or accommodations for people with disabilities.” 

Do you work at Nike or have insight to share? Contact reporter Matthew Kish via the encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-971-319-3830) or email ([email protected]). Check out Insider’s source guide for other tips on sharing information securely.

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