Ford memo outlines plan to put unvaccinated salaried workers on unpaid leave

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press

Ford Motor Co. is planning to place unvaccinated salaried employees in the U.S. on unpaid leaves of absence if they do not have approved exemptions, according to an internal document obtained by the Free Press.

The action, which could affect several hundred employees, is "due to continued non-compliance with the company's vaccination requirements," the document says.

"Part of the compliance with the vaccination requirement included a requirement for employees to report their vaccination status. Those who refused to report are treated as unvaccinated" since Ford has no way to know otherwise, the document says.

Ford employee Ruben Vargas checks in to receive his COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 at Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock.

Ford did not challenge the contents of the document except for its mention of a March 7 implementation date, which has been delayed pending notification of employees. 

"Unpaid leave is limited to those that choose not to be vaccinated and have not sought and received an accommodation," Ford spokesperson Said Deep told the Free Press on Thursday. "We will not be implementing this action until each employee impacted has been personally contacted, listened to and given an opportunity to make an informed choice. We will be working through this with the impacted employees in the weeks to come."

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Ford declined to confirm the date that a leave of absence protocol would commence other than that it would go into effect sometime in the near term.

"We continue to work individually with the small population of less than 400, which is about 1% of the impacted U.S. salaried employees from Ford and Ford Credit who have not yet been vaccinated or submitted a request for accommodation," Deep said.

"Our intent is to ensure every effort is made to understand employees’ issues and concerns about the mandate and provide information to inform their decisions. The ultimate goal is to have all employees working, focused on Ford’s business goals and be compliant with the vaccine policy."

According to the document: "The leave is of unspecified duration at this time. Your position, or a comparable one, will be held for you for 30 calendar days from the start of the leave."

How unpaid leave will work

Unpaid leaves of absence were scheduled to begin in early March "or sooner if by mutual agreement" between the employee and their manager, according to the document, which outlines frequently asked questions and answers for employees but has yet to be distributed to the workforce. 

Documents indicate the internal discussion about unpaid leaves has been ongoing since November and deadline dates for vaccination protocol compliance for salaried workers have been pushed from January to February to March.

The Free Press obtained and reviewed multiple emails and audio recordings of conversations between salaried workers and human resources managers that reflect worker confusion and distress about the fate of those who aren't compliant with the company's vaccination requirement..

Ford employee Chris Yates receives his COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 at Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock.

"All employees are being given two weeks advance notice of the leave; it is expected that this time be used to complete or transition work," the memo says. It was unclear when the memo might be sent out to workers.

People planning to take unpaid leave rather than vaccinate or obtain exemptions should work with their managers to "develop a plan to transition" work responsibilities to others, the memo says.

Managers may also choose to begin a leave of absence for an employee sooner if "productivity declines" or "behavior is disruptive."

However, there can be no delay beyond the eventual deadline date for any reason, including the completion of a project or transitioning of work, the memo says.

Job held for 30 days

People who would be affected by the policy outlined in the memo and who work on Ford property in what are called "site dependent" positions must return company assets to their managers, who will retain them in a secure location and return them when the employees return to work

Remote workers would not have to return company assets prior to the leave unless they want to, and managers would retain the items for the duration of the leave.

Managers have been instructed not to discuss the reason for leaves of absence with other employees. 

Ford employee Melvin Gaddis receives his COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 at Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock.

The company would disable access to key systems for employees on leave, including those involving company badges, telephones and computers. 

Employees on unpaid leave would be eligible to receive their annual bonus for the 2021 performance year, the memo says. However, the performance bonus for the 2022 year will be prorated for when an employee is absent.

People on leaves of absence would receive their annual bonus at the same time as everyone else. If there is a merit increase, that would be paid on the first available pay date following a return to work, the memo says.

No contact

Managers would not be permitted to contact employees on unpaid leaves of absence for any reason, other than to discuss a return to work once vaccination compliance is confirmed. 

If an employee wants to "voluntarily quit, either before the leave begins or during the unpaid leave," Ford said this is permissible. If a resignation occurs prior to the bonus payment, the employee would be ineligible for the bonus payment. In addition, company assets would need to be returned and paperwork processed. 

If an employee wants to retire before the leave begins or after, this would be allowed, too.

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The memo ends by saying Ford employees would be able to return to work once they are "in compliance" with the company's vaccination requirement, either receiving the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccination regimen or receiving an approved religious or medical accommodation.

30,000 salaried Ford workers in US

If an employee were on leave for more than 30 calendar days and their position is no longer available, that employee would be responsible for identifying a comparable open position for which they're qualified, the memo says.

"If no such position can be identified, you will remain on unpaid leave until further notice," the memo says.

Ford employs 183,000 workers worldwide. Of the 86,000 employees in the U.S., 30,000 are salaried and 56,000 are hourly, according to data updated in February.

'Prioritize safety'

In January, Ford notified some employees that it planned to "implement protocols and support efforts that prioritize the safety of the workforce and protect our Ford team, their families, and our communities," according to an email from a human resources official sent to a salaried worker who was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly. 

"As part of these efforts, we previously communicated that you are required to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19," the email said.

Ford employee Melvin Gaddis checks in to receive his COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 at Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock.

The email, obtained by the Free Press, says the company mentioned extending the deadline to Feb. 11. In order to be considered fully vaccinated, the email said, an employee must have received the last vaccine dose on or before Jan. 28.

Salaried workers confirmed to the Free Press that dates provided have been fluid.

"If you are already in the process of getting fully vaccinated, we thank you for your effort," the email said. "Please be sure to update your status in the COVID-19 Vaccination Self-Reporting Tool once you are fully vaccinated."

The email explained that fully vaccinated is a status term that applies to those who completed their vaccination series at least 14 days prior, or obtained an approved medical or religious accommodation.

Returning in April 

Meanwhile, Ford has confirmed to the Free Press that its salaried employees are planning to transition back to work at Ford properties starting April 4 with a "flexible hybrid model" for people whose jobs are not site-dependent. In the hybrid model, time is spent between working from home and on-site.

Ford  has said that project deliverables and milestones will determine when employees need to be on-site. Fully remote is also a work designation, along with site-dependent and hybrid.

'Strongly encourage' at GM

GM spokesman David Barnas said GM stands firmly in support of COVID-19 vaccination, but it does not require it for its salaried workforce.

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“We continue to strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated and boosted,” Barnas said. “GM’s overriding priority is keeping employees and their families safe. Data consistently show that getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and those around you.”

Stellantis pivots

Last month, Chrysler-parent Stellantis said it was dropping its vaccine mandate for U.S. salaried workers, although it said it continues to support employees getting vaccinated. The company, which also owns Jeep, Ram, Dodge and Fiat, said most of its 14,000 U.S. salaried workers have been vaccinated or have received an exemption.

Ford employee Ruben Vargas checks in to receive his COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 at Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock.

In factories run by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, hourly workers are not required to be vaccinated because policy is determined by collective bargaining and union collaboration with auto companies. The UAW has encouraged members to get vaccinated, but it has not been supportive of a mandate.  

Dozens of UAW factory workers died early in the pandemic after a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Free Press staff writers Jamie L. LaReau and Eric D. Lawrence contributed to this report.

Contact Phoebe Wall or 313-618-1034.Follow her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.