Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai is used to handling protests. The $2 trillion (£1.5 trillion) search engine giant has over the years faced staff revolts over the company’s work for the US military, sexual misconduct allegations against executives, and the firing of AI researchers who had highlighted bias in its technology.
But Pichai may not have expected the latest employee revolt. This week, hundreds of staff have circulated a “manifesto” calling for the company to end what it called a “coercive” Covid-19 vaccine mandate demanding that employees wishing to come into the office are vaccinated and that all staff inform the company of their vaccine status.
“I believe that Sundar’s Vaccine Mandate is deeply flawed,” read the document, first reported by CNBC. “I do not believe Google should be privy to the health and medical history of Googlers and the vaccination status is no exception.”
The manifesto’s signatories reportedly number around 600, a sliver of Google’s global workforce of 150,000 – the majority of which are based in the US. Its parent company Alphabet hired 6,000 staff in the last three months alone, 10 times the reported protest.
But it shows that even among a workforce perceived as young and liberal, there are pockets of dissent to the vaccine mandates imposed by Biden that have caused divisions in corporate America.
Joe Biden, elected on a promise to get the virus under control but faced with falling approval ratings, has attempted to use his clout to force large American employers to make their staff get the jab.
While the US president initially said he was reluctant to make vaccines compulsory, disappointing uptake has pushed him to take stronger measures. In September, the White House said staff working at federal contractors – a broad collection of companies from airlines to healthcare providers, defence firms and tech companies like Google – would need jabs by December 8.
Earlier this month the Biden administration went further. The White House demanded that all businesses with more than 100,000 employees require staff to be vaccinated or subject to regular testing and masks at work from January 4. Roughly 84m workers are covered by the second order.
Biden’s opponents have called the move a dramatic overreach, and it was immediately challenged.
Two weeks ago a US court suspended the mandate, calling it a “one-size fits-all sledgehammer”, while a legal challenge from Texas attorney general Ken Paxton is assessed. Mr Paxton has said that “the Biden Administration’s new vaccine mandate on private businesses is a breathtaking abuse of federal power”.
The White House is seeking to overturn the suspension but faces a legal battle to keep it. This week’s incident at Google highlights the sustained backlash from some businesses against the policy.
Trade associations representing truckers and retailers have issued their own legal challenges, fearing it will mean losing workers at a time when record levels of job vacancies have left them racing to hire staff.
“Our members are already facing workforce shortages and supply chain disruptions, in addition to the legal and practical challenges of implementing this [standard] during the holiday season,” Matthew Shay, the president of the National Retail Federation said.
“We have consistently and repeatedly communicated our concerns about the practical challenges of meeting those arbitrary targets. However, it appears that our only remaining course of action is to petition for judicial relief.”
Other businesses, however, have said the drawbacks of not enforcing vaccinations outweigh the problems that come with requiring them.
This summer, US airline United became one of the first major employers to require frontline staff to be vaccinated or go on unpaid leave. Its chief executive Scott Kirby said in an interview this week that he had become tired of writing letters to families of employees that had passed away, and that passengers had felt safer flying with the company due to the jab requirements.
Employees had challenged United’s policy in court, but earlier this month a judge rejected the complaints. Other airlines have since followed suit.
Google is in a similar position. Most employees support its decision to demand vaccines for employees who return to the office.
“As we’ve stated to all our employees and the author of this document, our vaccination requirements are one of the most important ways we can keep our workforce safe and keep our services running,” the company said. “We firmly stand behind our vaccination policy.”
But protestors say Google has gone beyond its requirements by asking employees to upload their proof of vaccination to the company itself, and requiring all staff involved in government work to be vaccinated even if working from home.
The California-based company is an important technology provider to the US government and also has growing ambitions in healthcare.
Tensions could heat up as employees seek to return to the office. Both Google and Facebook have said they will require staff coming into work to be vaccinated, but their policies have not been fully tested with most still working from home. Google employees will be expected to come back three days a week from January 10, at which point vaccine requirements might threaten to become even more controversial.
Google is unlikely to back down from its demands, and internal employee gripes are unlikely to bloom into full protest among a significant number of staff. But other parts of the US economy face tougher choices. Slightly more than 70pc of adults have been fully vaccinated, and 80pc have had one shot. In one in five states, fewer than half of adults are fully protected.
That could lead Biden to redouble efforts to demand vaccines, insisting that mandates are the only way to make it happen. Requirements for nursing home workers in New York brought vaccination rates up from 77pc to 92pc in a month, for example.
But businesses are already struggling to hold onto staff amid wage pressures and a red hot job market. Enforcing a potentially unpopular vaccine demand, and having to lose workers who do not comply, is the last thing they might need.
In their petition, employees said: “I believe Sundar’s Vaccine Mandate is deeply flawed.”
The letter adds: “Barring unvaccinated Googlers from the office publicly and possibly embarrassingly exposes a private choice as it would be difficult for the Googler not to reveal why they cannot return.”
“It justifies the principle of division and unequal treatment of Googlers based on their personal beliefs and decisions. The implications are chilling. Due to its presence as an industry leader, Google’s mandate will influence companies around the world to consider these as acceptable tradeoffs.”
The White House has ordered that all companies in the US with more than 100 staff must get their staff vaccinated, or implement a policy of regular testing, by January 4.
In July, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said the tech giant would require vaccinations for those returning to the office, but had previously said those who did not want to get vaccinated could work remotely.