Activision workers walk out over lifting of vaccine mandate. It ‘came as a shock to everybody.’

Employees pass in front of the main entrance at Activision Blizzard in Irvine in July. The Irvine office and two other offices out of state will still require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to work in person. A virtual walkout took place among employees in the Irvine office and other locations. (Raul Roa / Times Community News)

More than 100 Activision Blizzard employees participated in a virtual walkout Monday as the Santa Monica video game studio joined a growing wave of companies lifting COVID-19 vaccination requirements while forcing workers to return to the office.

Employees at the studio best known for its “World of Warcraft” and “Call of Duty” franchises who participated in the work stoppage took the day as an unpaid walkout day. Some joined a Zoom call that was a virtual protest gathering and spoke out on social media.

The walkout came in response to the company announcing Thursday that it would no longer require employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to work in the office, according to an email from Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao that was shared by employees and subsequently posted on Twitter.

The email cited businesses and indoor venues across the US lifting their vaccine requirements and said it was “important to align our site protocols with local guidance.”

Major companies such as Adidas, Starbucks and Intel have rescinded their vaccine mandates for workers in recent months after the Supreme Court in January struck down the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-testing rule for businesses with at least 100 workers. In California, a bill proposed by the Assembly that would have required all employees and independent contractors to be inoculated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment was shelved March 29.

Even United Airlines, which implemented the airline industry’s first vaccination requirement for its employees in August and moved 2,200 employees with vaccine exemptions to unpaid leave or alternate roles, is allowing unvaccinated workers to return to their old posts.

Activision Blizzard’s announcement “came as a shock to everybody,” said Ada-Claire Cripps, a senior software engineer with Battle.net and online products at Blizzard.

Cripps said she and other employees had already been dissatisfied with the company’s previous position on returning to the office, which suggested that all workers would eventually work in person by default unless they applied for an exemption.

“We’ve been able to do our jobs without needing to be physically present in the office, so this idea that we do need to be there, it seems a little unfounded,” Cripps said.

With the added removal of the vaccine mandate and a spouse at home in an at-risk category for COVID, Cripps said she’s even more reluctant to return to the office.

“I do not want to have to go into a workplace where I do not know who I can trust to not get me sick,” she said.

An Activision Blizzard spokesperson denied that the company was planning to require all employees to eventually return to the office and said that a majority of employees are operating under a voluntary return-to-office policy.

“When employees return to the office, as well as what their remote vs. in-person scheduling will look like, will vary by business unit and role, ”the spokesperson said.

Workers say they’re frustrated by the lack of clarity about how their return to office will be handled, as well as why some employees can continue working remotely while others cannot.

Andrew Carl, a senior systems designer at Blizzard’s Albany, NY, office, formerly known at Vicarious Visions, described the process to request an exemption from returning to the office as “onerous and does not seem to be applied equally.”

Carl said several co-workers who worked in quality assurance departments were told they could not continue working remotely, and others were told they must have a diagnosed medical condition to ask for an exemption from returning to the office.

A Better ABK, a worker organizing group at Activision Blizzard, announced plans Friday to hold a worker walkout, listing demands to reverse the decision to lift the vaccine requirement, offer remote work as a permanent solution and allow individual employees to decide whether to work in the office or from home.

Shortly after the walkout was announced, Bulatao sent out another email clarifying that although the companywide vaccine mandate had been lifted, individual studios and locations could still implement vaccine requirements for workers for the entire office. A company spokesperson confirmed the Blizzard office in Irvine as well as quality assurance offices in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas would still require employees to be inoculated against COVID-19 to work in person.

Workers are still demanding that the vaccine mandate be reimplemented across the company and that Activision have an “open and equitable” return-to-office policy.

“What we want to do is make sure everybody is as safe as possible and further be protected by vaccination and testing,” Cripps said.

Anthony Santella, a professor of health administration policy at the University of New Haven, said he was concerned with the “all-or-nothing” approach some companies are taking to COVID-19 safety measures. Though COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are dipping in parts of the country, increased travel in the summer months and emerging variants make lifting safety measures premature, he said.

Some mitigation measures such as the daily symptom reporting and the physical social distancing requirement some companies still have in place could be eased, Santella said, but “vaccination requirements, to me that’s a non-starter.”

Walkouts at Activision Blizzard have become almost a regular occurrence in the last year as a flurry of news reports detailed allegations of sexual misconduct and discrimination. Workers sought to remove Chief Executive Bobby Kotick after the Wall Street Journal reported that he was aware of but failed to report to the board several alleged sexual misconduct incidents. Employees also walked out in protest of the layoff of several quality assurance workers at the company’s Raven Software studio in Wisconsin.

“There have been multiple walkouts at Activision in the past year due to management’s refusal to put the safety and protection of its workers over profits,” said Beth Allen, a spokesperson for Communications Workers of America, a nationwide union that has been assisting with organizing efforts among workers at Activision Blizzard. “We believe all workers should have a voice in important health and safety issues, especially during the pandemic.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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