Shipbuilders at the Ingalls yard start fabricating steel for the Legend-class national security cutter Friedman (WMSL 760) on May 12, 2021.

Shipbuilders at the Ingalls yard start fabricating steel for the Legend-class national security cutter Friedman (WMSL 760) on May 12, 2021. Derek Fountain/HII

Defense Industry Asks White House to Allow COVID Tests to Substitute for Vax Mandate

Nation’s largest military shipbuilder says it won’t comply until mandate is written into a contract.

Fearing a loss of highly skilled workers, groups representing large and small defense firms are pushing the Biden administration to allow employees to take periodic COVID tests instead of getting vaccinated. Currently, employees of companies that do work for the federal government must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 18.

At least one company, Navy shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries, said it would not enforce the mandate at shipyards in Mississippi and Virginia unless the requirement was included in a government contract.

“Our focus is on being able to keep the workforce you need as a company to deliver on the contracts you have, and the future contracts that you're going to get,” said David Berteau, CEO of the Professional Services Council. “One way to retain that workforce is to have the testing option.”

The request comes as executives say they are trying to balance worker safety and delivering on contracts. The virus is still spreading through defense factories, sickening workers and delaying weapons projects. But the groups representing defense companies say their employees should be treated differently because they build the military’s weapons.

“We need more flexibility. There needs to be a waiver. There needs to be one-size-does-not-fit-all,” said Arnold Punaro, chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association, which represents 1,600 defense companies.

The Biden administration initially called for the vaccine mandate to begin Dec. 8. However, contractors’ employees now have until Jan. 4 to get their final shot because they are required to be “fully vaccinated” by Jan. 18.

Some large companies have touted vaccination rates beyond 90 percent, while others—specifically shipbuilders—have struggled to persuade vaccine-hesitant workers. Last week, Huntington Ingalls Industries CEO Mike Petters said that his company would not comply with the mandate at its shipyards in Virginia and Mississippi because the Navy has not modified its work contracts. The memo, first reported by Defense News, said the Navy “has confirmed that our contracts do not include a requirement to implement the mandate.” 

In a quarterly earnings call last month, General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic hinted that her company would also wait for contract modifications before implementing the mandate.

“Because of our customer, operational and geographic diversity of many of our businesses, we are working with our customers as contract modifications are received that could trigger an implementation,” Novakovic said.

For HII and General Dynamics, those contract modifications might not come for months or longer, since the Navy might only award a company a single shipbuilding contract in a calendar year.

Some companies, including Raytheon Technologies, began requiring vaccines for workers before the federal mandate was announced. In the private sector, United Airlines, Tyson Foods and other large firms with mandates have high vaccination rates among workers. Others, including Delta Air Lines, do not have vaccine mandates, but are charging unvaccinated workers an extra $200 per month for their health insurance. The hope is the extra bill will encourage employees to get the shot.

Some say that while anti-vaccine protests and walk-outs have generated headlines, a quieter majority of their workers want their colleagues to be vaccinated.

“A lot of companies in my association have had tremendous success getting all or nearly all of their employees vaccinated,” Berteau said. “And [there are] a lot of workers out there who want to go to a workplace where everybody's vaccinated.”

Before the Biden administration delayed the federal contractor mandate, early indications were vaccinations were rising, even at the shipyards where workers have been the most vocal against the shot. 

At Ingalls Shipbuilding, the Mississippi shipyard that Petters said would not enforce the mandate, the vaccination rate shot up from about half of the workers to nearly 80 percent earlier this month. This week, Ingalls Shipbuilding President Kari Wilkinson told workers “the suspension of the mandate provides immediate relief now by not requiring separation of employment for the unvaccinated, [but] it does not mean it will not be imposed in the future.” In a post on the company’s smartphone app, she wrote that increased vaccination levels have led to a “significant reduction in the number of COVID cases within our shipbuilding community” and that the company “will continue to encourage 100% vaccination.”

Companies, particularly the shipyards, are most concerned about losing workers with trade specialities that are difficult to replace.

“It takes over 12 years to be certified as a welder on a nuclear submarine [and] it takes many years to be certified to put the stealth coatings on the Joint Strike Fighter,” Punaro said. “These people are leaving because of the vaccine mandate. You cannot replace them.”

At the same time, officials say most companies have been widely successful in getting employees vaccinated and there are many workers who want to work alongside vaccinated workers. But companies have warned that the mandate will further disrupt a supply chain already hampered by pandemic-related slowdowns.

A testing option

Some are pushing for testing of non-vaccinated workers. In some cases, trade groups say, people with medical waivers or religious accommodations at companies and within the federal government are already being tested. 

“It makes sense for companies to at least have the same options, flexibility, that their government civilian counterparts have,” Berteau said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidance for companies with more than 100 workers calls for a vaccine mandate or testing for unvaccinated workers, but a federal appeals court has put a stay on it.

“You're always going to have waivers and accomodations,” Berteau said. “So how much is enough?”

If testing is granted, another question becomes who pays for it and who will audit compliance?

Berteau said he wants to see guidance to contracting officers that says: “you do have responsibilities for performance on the particular contract, but you also have a responsibility to act in a way that maintains the long-term viability of the business base and the industry to meet government's needs. That's the guidance I would like to see out of the White House.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.