President Joe Biden came to Illinois Thursday to tout vaccine mandates for large employers, using a pair of Chicago-area companies as evidence that workplace-based vaccination requirements work and are a true pathway out of the nation’s COVID-19 death grip.
“I know the vaccination requirements are tough medicine. Unpopular with some. Politics for others. But they’re lifesaving. They’re game changing for our country,” Biden said.
Accompanied by Gov. JB Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, Biden made his remarks at a Microsoft data center being built in Elk Grove Village by Clayco, one of the largest construction firms in the Midwest.
Chicago-based Clayco announced plans Thursday to require its 2,600-plus workers be vaccinated or undergo regular testing, which is in line with Biden’s push last month for similar vaccination requirements for employers of 100 or more people.
Elk Grove Township-based United has already implemented a vaccination and testing mandate on its 67,000-member workforce. Since imposing the mandate, the air carrier has said more than 99% of its employees have been vaccinated.
“Today, I’m calling on more employers to act. My message is, require your employees to get vaccinated. With vaccinations, we’re going to beat this pandemic, finally,” he said.
Biden singled out both United Airlines and Clayco for their steps toward vaccinating its employees — work that the president said will serve as an important road map to other employers.
“I came here to Clayco to thank this company for doing the right thing,” Biden said. “Today, Clayco is announcing it’s going to require all employees to be fully vaccinated or be tested once a week. It matters. I know these decisions aren’t easy. But you’re setting an example and a powerful example.”
Biden rattled off a litany of other companies around the country that have embraced vaccination mandates — including one of his political cable-news nemeses, whose commentators have advocated against vaccinations for the masses.
“Even — this I always get a kick out of — Fox News,” Biden whispered, drawing laughter and applause from his audience. “Fox News requires vaccinations for all of its employees. Gimme a break, Fox News.”
Ahead of Biden’s second visit as president to Illinois, the White House released a report outlining how inoculation mandates have cut the number of unvaccinated Americans by one-third since July.
The report singled out Illinois for its requirement that all health-care workers be vaccinated or regularly tested, one of four states to do so, and the University of Illinois Chicago for achieving a 96% vaccination rate after it imposed its mandate on faculty, staff and students.
The White House report also noted that Illinois is one of 10 states that have vaccination requirements for K-12 school staff.
Those were steps that bore the fingerprints of Pritzker, whom Biden singled out for his efforts to tame the pandemic.
“JB, you, governor, you’ve done more than about anybody I can think of in any state. I meant that sincerely,” the president said. “You’ve stepped up. You’ve always done what you said you’re going to do, and you’ve been relentless in getting people vaccinated. In the Midwest, you’re leading. You’re leading. And it’s real. It’s not hyperbole.”
Biden also complimented the mayor.
“Mayor Lightfoot, the same thing,” he said.
Lightfoot has sought to push through her own vaccine mandate for all city workers, but has faced pushback from the city’s unions on exceptions and testing alternatives.
In Chicago, public health authorities reported Thursday that nearly 74% of residents 12 and older have gotten at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine.
In Illinois, that rate stands at 70%, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 13 other states have higher vaccination rates than Illinois.
Air Force One touched down at O’Hare International Airport shortly before 1 p.m., and the president was met on the tarmac by Pritzker, Lightfoot and Democratic U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Mike Quigley.
The president’s trip to Chicago came amid a possible, bipartisan congressional breakthrough on a plan to increase the nation’s debt ceiling through early December — a deal, which if it holds, would avert temporarily the possibility of a first-ever default on the national debt.
When asked by reporters in Chicago whether he backed that deal, Biden crossed his fingers but said, “We gotta see if the deal is done. I’m not sure of that yet.”
Later, during his speech in Elk Grove Village, Biden also said he directed the Justice Department to crack down on disruptive airline passengers, many of whom have started on-board fights over masking requirements.
“We’re going to deal with that,” he said.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.