Federal vaccine mandates would affect employers, workers across region

Credit: Melissa Melvin

Credit: Melissa Melvin

Local business groups and unions expressed concern Friday about sweeping new federal vaccine mandates, though a local expert says some employers may be quietly appreciative.

President Joe Biden this week announced that all federal employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19, with limited exemptions. Private employers with 100 or more workers must require their employees to be vaccinated or take weekly COIVD-19 tests — otherwise the company could face fines.

“This mandate appears to put the burden of stopping the pandemic on the shoulders of employers, and that’s not a fair ask,” said Chris Kershner, president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Kershner said businesses already are incurring costs from keeping workplaces safe amid the pandemic.

“The burden on business operations combined with a brutal labor market has put businesses at a tipping point,” he said. “Now the government is expecting employers to take on the responsibility and cost of weekly tests and employee monitoring, which will only add to the increased operation costs and business fatigue caused by COVID.”

The requirement for large companies to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing for employees will be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation, according to the Associates Press. The rule also will require that large companies provide paid time off for vaccination.

Jason Matthews, a Dayton attorney specializing in employment law, said the federal mandate gives some cover to employers who wanted to mandate vaccines but were concerned about pushback.

“It kind of takes the discretion out of the picture for private sector employers because they have to comply with the federal laws,” he said. “And they have a safe harbor, they’re saying, ‘It’s not our decision we’re just complying with what the federal government says we have to do.’”

Matthews said he has received calls from local workers in health care and nursing homes who are concerned about being required to take the vaccine. He said companies have long had the ability to mandate employee behavior such as getting a vaccine, with health and religious exemptions.

But civil service protections, he said, could make it harder to discipline federal government employees for not following the mandate.

This includes the roughly 13,000 civilian workers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio’s largest single-site employer. The roughly 8,000 active-duty military members at the base already are required to be vaccinated by Nov. 2.

Bob Purtiman, chief of public affairs for the 88th Air Base Wing at WPAFB, said they are awaiting further guidance on how to implement the new requirement.

Officials with large, local employers such as Kroger and CareSource say they also are awaiting more information from the Biden administration to determine how the mandates will affect them.

“We anticipate President Biden’s plan will apply to CareSource, and we will be required to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees,” said a CareSource spokesperson in a statement. “This morning we made employees aware of this possibility.”

One large, private-sector employer that requires employee vaccines is Tyson Foods. The company, which has hundreds of employees in the northern Cincinnati area, is requiring all team members to be vaccinated by Nov. 1, subject to ongoing union negotiations at some sites.

Most area private sector employers so far have relied more on incentives than mandates to get employees vaccinated. Kroger offers employees $100 to get vaccinated.

Cleveland-Cliffs, formerly AK Steel, reported last month that 75% of workers at its Middletown facility were vaccinated following incentives developed with its labor unions that paid employees $1,500 to get vaccinated.

Jamie Karl, spokesman with the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, said the mandate would apply to nearly one third of its 1,500 members.

He said most companies are encouraging employees to get vaccinated for the sake of business continuity. But they are concerned about the added cost of a federal mandate, just as they oppose efforts by Ohio lawmakers to ban employers from requiring vaccines.

“Employers should have the right to determine what’s best for their workforce,” he said.

Labor unions, meanwhile, are also pushing back against Biden’s mandate because it is being done away from the bargaining table.

Jim Brown, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers branch that represents more than 1,000 postal workers in the region, said he has heard from members concerned about the mandate.

“Most people, in my area anyway, are very freedom-oriented as far as wanting to be allowed to make their own choices,” he said.

He and most others interviewed for this story said they expect the mandate to face legal challenges that will determine whether it will take effect and who it will apply to.

It’s unclear whether Ohio will be among the states challenging the mandate. But Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Friday called the mandate “a mistake,” and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said the president is “acting unlawfully.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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