GM requires U.S. salaried workers to disclose their vaccination status

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. has required its U.S. salaried employees to attest to their COVID-19 vaccination status, the Detroit automaker confirmed Thursday.

The No. 1 U.S. automaker said it notified some 40,000 employees Aug. 12 that they would be required to report their vaccination status to the company via a "confidential online reporting tool" by this past Tuesday. Employees who confirmed that they have been vaccinated were asked to submit a photograph of their vaccination card as proof.

A copy of an email General Motors reportedly sent to staffers on disclosing their vaccine status, posted to a UAW member Facebook group.

In a letter, the automaker assured employees that "only GM Medical staff and authorized personnel" would have access to the data and that the information would be "handled confidentially." 

"Reporting your vaccination status to GM Medical helps the company assess the overall immunity level of our employee population and determine appropriate measures to support employee safety," Dr. Jeffery Hess, GM's corporate medical director, said in the letter, according to a copy seen by The Detroit News. "The level of immunity is an important factor in determining when GM may need to increase or be able to relax or rescind certain COVID-19 safety protocols."

In a statement, GM spokesperson Maria Raynal echoed this: "In addition to helping assess the overall immunity of our employee population, the information will also be used to verify compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols, such as mask wearing, and influence future public health decisions the company may need to make to continue to protect our employees and the business."

Raynal declined to comment on what would happen to employees who opted not to report their vaccination status. And asked about the vaccination survey's results, she said GM is "still in the process of reviewing the data" and does "not plan to provide this information at this time."

GM's survey, news of which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, comes as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge in many parts of the U.S., which experts attribute to the spread of the delta variant and lagging vaccination rates. In Michigan, new infection numbers have been trending upward for a month; the state added a total of 4,326 new cases and 38 deaths from the virus on Tuesday and Wednesday.

GM CEO Mary Barra on Thursday addressed the topic, and other questions related to the automaker's handling of the pandemic, in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

"Because of the outbreak of the delta variant, we are now back into wearing masks in the U.S. and it varies around the world based on what's happening, and our employees have just done a phenomenal job of following our safety protocols," she said. "We continue to evaluate all options of what we can do because we know getting everyone vaccinated is going to be critical to stopping the different variants of the disease."

"Right now we're also very much focused on education," she added, "because there's a lot of myths out there or misinformation where people are making decisions to not get the vaccine based on bad information, so we also are running an education campaign, as well."

GM thus far has not mandated the vaccine for its workforce, though Raynal said in a statement that the company "encourages our employees to get vaccinated" and hopes that the Pfizer vaccine's approval by federal regulators "may help alleviate concerns among any who have waited to get their shots."

Barra also was asked about the role of the United Auto Workers in deciding whether to mandate the vaccine. Calling the UAW a "fantastic partner," Barra said GM will "work with the unions and that will be something that we negotiate with them or work with them to decide what the right thing to do is."

New UAW President Ray Curry was asked about GM's survey of its salaried workforce during a media roundtable on Thursday. He said the UAW has not conducted similar surveys, and suggested that information about an employee's vaccination status would be protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. 

“We would consider and discuss as a condition of employment voluntary efforts with each one of our employers, as we've have with other issues that are subject to bargaining, so we would take that under consideration about a voluntary effort with each one of the employers," said Curry.

Amid ongoing national debates about vaccine mandates, there have been suggestions that requiring proof of vaccination is a HIPAA violation, but health experts and officials have said this is a misunderstanding of healthy privacy laws. 

"If an employer asks an employee to provide proof that they have been vaccinated, that is not a HIPAA violation, and employees may decide whether to provide that information to their employer," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states on its website.

Raynal said GM has been collecting similar data from its entire workforce on a voluntary basis.

"In an effort to improve our data collection, we took the first step with our U.S. salaried employees to put a process in place for mandatory reporting," she said. "We will maintain the voluntary reporting of vaccine status and encourage our hourly employees to continue to report in that system."

Meanwhile, crosstown rival Ford Motor Co. so far has taken a different approach.

The Dearborn automaker earlier this summer added a voluntary question about vaccination status to the survey that employees who work on-site must fill out before going to work, spokeswoman Marisa Bradley said. The survey gives workers the option to answer "yes," "no," or "prefer not to answer" whether they've been fully vaccinated.

"We do not receive or retain the responses in connection with any contact information or personal information," Bradley said in a statement. "It has only been used to aggregate vaccination information with the purpose of helping to inform our protocols."

She said the company does not have an overall workforce vaccination rate "as we haven't been collecting specific data."

Ford is requiring vaccinations for employees whose jobs involve international travel. It has not mandated vaccines for its entire workforce, though company officials have said they are discussing expanding the current, limited requirement.

The News reached out to Stellantis NV for comment on whether it is surveying employees on their vaccination status but the automaker did not immediately have a response. 

All three Detroit automakers have announced plans for hybrid work models for many salaried workers even after the pandemic eases. GM earlier this year announced a new "mindset" dubbed "Work Appropriately" that gives employees the flexibility to work from home, a lab, an office, or wherever they can best perform their jobs.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Reporters Kalea Hall and Breana Noble contributed.