Opinion: Automakers Are Overstepping Their Boundaries


General Motors now requires salaried employees operating in the United States to disclose their coronavirus vaccination status. As confirmed by the automaker on Thursday, the decision is supposed to help the company determine what percentage of its own workforce is vaccinated so it can make better decisions about which safety protocols to implement. But your author is under the assumption that “as many as possible” will always be the preferred answer.

Earlier in the month, GM forced all salaried employees to disclose whether or not they were immunized for COVID-19 using the automaker’s internal network. Those answering to the affirmative were required to submit proof of vaccination by last Monday. But it sounds as though the manufacturer is just getting warmed up for more invasive activities. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, GM wants to use the data to determine how it implements future protocols. But it’s not clear exactly how peering into the medical records of its 42,000 staff members is going to help. The current roster of COVID vaccines was not developed with the Delta variant in mind and therefore have lessened effectiveness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently went from suggesting they were near totally effective in preventing Delta to stating the number was probably closer to 66 percent. Though they do help lessen symptoms for at-risk individuals with relevant health issues or who happen to be of advanced age.

“The reporting of our employees’ vaccination status is helping GM Medical assess the overall immunity of our employee population and determine when GM should relax or strengthen certain COVID-19 safety protocols as recommended by the CDC and OSHA, such as mask wearing, physical distancing and facility occupancy rates,” spokeswoman Maria Raynal explained to Automotive News.

“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 continued. “We will maintain the voluntary reporting of vaccine status and encourage our hourly employees to continue to report in the voluntary system.”

It certainly seems like sound reasoning on the surface. But the CDC literally just said that transmission is still possible among vaccinated individuals — particularly with the Delta strain that’s on the move now. There has also been a gluttony of studies about how cloth masks are ineffective at protecting individuals from spreading or obtaining the virus.

Lisa Brosseau, an industrial hygienist consulting with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, has been campaigning to educate people on the futility of loose-fitting cloth coverings for months. In her estimation, full-blown respirators are the only sure-fire form of physical protection. But she’s one of many researchers making similar claims that ultimately led the CDC to encourage people to improve the fit and filtration — which paved the way for Dr. Anthony Fauci to temporarily push for double masking.

Truth be told, the only thing consistent about the science has been its inconsistency. Messaging has been really bad in regard to COVID and we’ve instituted harsh restrictions that have upended people’s lives and violated their privacy. But multinational corporations feel like they’ll be able to get a handle on things if they can just get a little bit more blind compliance from their employees. Let’s not pretend that GM’s voluntary reporting for blue-collared workers is going to last forever, especially now that they’re mandating vaccine IDs for white-collar staff. The entire pandemic has felt like an exercise in seeing just how much authority governments and corporations could gradually exert over everyone else.

But that’s the nature of things. Idioms like “Give an inch and they’ll take a mile” don’t emerge from nothing and pushing people around who are weaker or dumber than you have been a cornerstone of humanity since we’ve lived in caves and were limited to grunting at each other. A lot of this COVID stuff is even being done with good intentions, unfortunately, those intentions haven’t resulted in doing much more than straining relationships, causing confusion, demolishing productivity, and giving strange new powers to businesses that should really just be focused on building cars.

After all, there’s a global chip shortage that has been negatively impacting production output for months and customer privacy violations happening on a fairly regular basis. But the industry doesn’t care because it’s still managed to be profitable — which explains why automakers are harvesting and selling your private data and the constant insistence those subscription services nobody really likes will eventually be normalized. They don’t even want you to own your personal car in the future. Instead, you’ll enjoy an “ownership experience” requiring a monthly fee.

And yet you’re still supposed to assume they have your best interest at heart in terms of medical requirements.

I know the automotive industry has a history brimming with charming characters, emotional moments, and countless vehicles we have a deep affinity for. It even helped uplift an entire generation by providing good-paying jobs to people that previously didn’t have access. But it’s never really been known for altruism or intentionally heroic behavior. Automakers have repeatedly collaborated with each other, and sometimes the government, to destroy the competition before it manages to get off the ground (e.g. the Tucker 48); is frequently involved in bribery schemes (e.g. Daimler in 2010 and the UAW’s latest corruption scandal); often misleads investors (e.g. Faraday Future, Nikola, and Lordstown Motors); and routinely sells vehicles it knows have safety or reliability issues (e.g. GM Ignition Switch, Takata airbag inflators, and Getrag Ford Transmissions).

Are we seriously going to assume that their demands for personal medical information won’t be similarly mishandled? Are we that trusting of an industry that has a long history of screwing things up and/or acting in a predatory manner?

Let’s wrap by reviewing manufacturers’ preferred ways for coping with COVID.

While the United Auto Workers has been on board with most pandemic-related measures, it pressed pause this week as automakers began discussing vaccine requirements and new forms of identification. On Thursday, UAW President Ray Curry said the union would only support “voluntary measures” to encourage vaccination or survey workers’ vaccination status. Instituting penalties for employees that refused to get vaccinated or share medical information was not off the table, however. Curry just wanted to ensure that negotiations were conducted before those were instituted.

“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,” Dr. Jeffrey Hess, GM’s corporate medical director, said this week.

At present, GM’s overarching pandemic plan is looking much like what we’ve seen from Ford. Neither company has a concrete return-to-work timeline for office staff and both believe a flexible approach using shared workspaces is the best strategy. It also happens to be substantially less expensive to operate, something which undoubtedly helps inform its decision. Meanwhile, Ford is considering vaccine mandates while GM is already moving toward compulsory vaccine IDs. But it only pertains to salaried workers that are already allowed to stay home, thereby offering limited infection risks to the rest of the company. Lineworkers that are required to meet up in the same building and breathe all over each other on the daily have no such requirement. If this is all so important and pertained solely to public health, why wouldn’t they have started with employees that actually had direct interactions that might actually spread the virus?

[Image: Michael Urmann/Shutterstock]

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