Protocol | Workplace

HPE just mandated vaccines. How will its Texas employee base react?

Vaccine mandates have become the norm for big tech companies based in the Bay Area. Houston-based Hewlett Packard Enterprise just announced its own mandate, and is bracing for some employee pushback.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Antonio Neri, right, poses with the company’s “IT Monster” mascot and two HPE interns — Hannah Reilly, left, and Neri’s daughter Lauren Neri — at the company’s office reopening celebration in San Jose on July 19.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Antonio Neri, right, poses with the company's "IT Monster" mascot and two HPE interns — Hannah Reilly, left, and Neri's daughter Lauren Neri — at the company's office reopening celebration in San Jose on July 19.

Photo: Allison Levitsky/Protocol

Hewlett Packard Enterprise will require employees, contractors and visitors to get vaccinated before coming to its offices or attending events, the company announced Tuesday.

The Houston enterprise tech vendor is in good company when it comes to issuing a vaccine mandate, following big names like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Adobe, Uber and Lyft.

But unlike those companies, HPE is no longer headquartered on the West Coast, where governments and businesses have been quicker to adopt restrictive COVID precautions than their counterparts in many other states.

HPE's new home state of Texas has been particularly hostile to vaccine mandates, including through Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order limiting government agencies' and some businesses' ability to require vaccines.

And not surprisingly, some tech companies have seen more resistance to vaccine mandates among employees in regions with lower vaccination rates, like Texas.

Still, HPE is forging ahead, suggesting that the tech industry's concerns about the fast-spreading delta variant trump regional differences in attitudes toward vaccine mandates.

Vaccine mandates expand beyond Bay Area-based companies

Abbott's executive order, issued last month, bars businesses that receive public funds "through any means, including grants, contracts, loans or other disbursements of taxpayer money" from requiring consumers to provide proof of vaccination "as a condition of receiving any service or entering any place."

After its mandate goes into effect on Oct. 4, HPE does plan to require workers to show proof of vaccination in order to maintain their badge access to the office. Still, HPE's executives don't see the order as a threat to the company's vaccine mandate.

"We've conducted a legal analysis of the executive order in Texas and do not believe it prohibits us from implementing this in Texas," HPE spokesperson Adam Bauer said in an email.

Evidently, the order isn't an issue for Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Adobe, Uber or Lyft, either, given that all of those companies have nationwide vaccine mandates that presumably apply to their Texas offices.

Other company rules, like mask mandates, can vary based on local and state regulations.

For example, HPE's offices in Silicon Valley are the only ones in which vaccinated employees have to wear masks, thanks to the mask mandate that local officials in the Bay Area put into effect last week.

At other offices, vaccinated employees are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks, while masks remain mandatory for the unvaccinated, Bauer said.

Amazon is another company that has imposed a mask requirement at some offices, but not all.

Where are tech workers pushing back on vaccine mandates?

Tech companies' vaccine mandates haven't yet inspired widespread backlash in the Bay Area, at least publicly.

That doesn't mean there hasn't been any discontent, and some companies have seen resistance to the mandates among employees based in regions with lower vaccination rates, according to Sheeva Ghassemi-Vanni, a partner in the employment practices and litigation groups at Silicon Valley law firm Fenwick and West.

"What I've heard from companies is: 'Our Bay Area contingent, we haven't seen pushback, but our Southern California contingent, we have,'" Ghassemi-Vanni told Protocol last week. "Or pick another state — in Texas or Utah — any state where you've seen mathematically lower levels of vaccination as a populace, and then I think you're more likely to get pushback."

HPE still has thousands of employees in Silicon Valley. Out of the 3,000 or so California-based employees who have disclosed their vaccination status to HPE, 94% said they were vaccinated.

The company hasn't surveyed its employees elsewhere — it only surveyed its California employees to comply with a rule from the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health — but it's presumably lower in Texas, where general vaccination rates lag behind California's.

Bauer said HPE expects some pushback from employees who don't support the vaccine mandate.

"Whether it's from California or from Texas or from Colorado or New York … We anticipate that there will be some population of people that disagree with this," Bauer told Protocol. "We made this decision fully acknowledging that, but overall this is the best decision for the company." By Thursday, Bauer said HPE had gotten around 50 employee responses to the announcement, and "less than a handful" opposed the vaccine mandate.

CEO Antonio Neri, who survived COVID-19 last year, tweeted Tuesday that he didn't "take this decision lightly" when it came to imposing a vaccine mandate.

"It is now clear that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while, and that getting back to normal will take more than masks and distancing," Neri wrote.

HPE won't fire workers — even on-site workers — over their vaccine status

HPE employees won't lose their jobs for being unvaccinated at this point, Bauer said.

90% of HPE's employees have jobs that allow them to work remotely long term, which makes it easy to accommodate unvaccinated workers.

"Vaccination will not be a condition of employment at this time, and we will work to provide reasonable accommodations for those who cannot perform their jobs remotely and will continue to enhance our inclusive experiences for those working remotely," Bauer said.

Even unvaccinated employees who can't work from home can get an accommodation to work on site, Bauer said. Those workers will be required to wear a mask, keep distance from others and get tested regularly.

Companies may choose to fire employees who are unvaccinated for a reason other than a medical or religious one, Ghassemi-Vanni said, but these issues are still being litigated.

"As of today's case law, terminating an individual for refusal to be vaccinated when you have a vaccine mandate can be legal," Ghassemi-Vanni said. "But it doesn't mean they won't try to sue you, and it doesn't mean that ultimately, a court somewhere might not hold you liable."

Ghassemi-Vanni advises clients to consider safe options for on-site work by unvaccinated employees.

"I've been advising clients: Although work from home may ultimately end up being the right accommodation here, I don't recommend an automatic default to that," Ghassemi-Vanni said. "I recommend exploring masking, Plexiglass barriers, etc."

This story was updated with HPE employees' vaccination mandate response.

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