Many Minnesota employers were relieved Thursday as the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine-or-test requirement that some feared would make it even harder for businesses to operate amid the continuing economic shocks from the pandemic.
State officials estimated more than 4,500 employers in Minnesota with 100 or more workers would have been affected by the requirement from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Those firms collectively employ about 1.4 million Minnesotans.
"We are pleased with the court's restraint. We continue to believe that employers know best how to manage their workplaces, and keep employees and customers safe," said Doug Loon, president and chief executive of the 2,300 member Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.
In a separate ruling, the high court upheld a federal mandate on health care providers that receive funding from the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs — virtually all hospitals and nursing homes in the state.
The justices, in the majority opinion, called the OSHA rule for private employers an overly "blunt instrument" that would have been a "significant encroachment into the lives — and health — of a vast number of employees."
The order would have required the nation's mid-sized and large businesses to mandate vaccines and collect proof of each worker's vaccination status. Those granted a medical or religious exemption would have needed to wear masks and undergo weekly testing.
Minnesota employers Thursday signaled plans to take varied approaches now that the OSHA rule has been disallowed. Some, like Andersen Windows and Doors, will only hire people who are vaccinated but won't require it of existing employees. Others will scrap all the employee vaccination records they've begun compiling.
In Minneapolis, officials at Graco said they "stayed neutral" and were prepared to implement this month the OSHA vaccination rules for the company's 1,500 Minnesota workers.
With the Supreme Court decision, a Graco spokeswoman said, "As of today, we stopped our efforts to implement the (requirements) and will be removing the data we had collected for compliance from our systems ... when the regulations allow us to."
Marty Davis, chief executive of the Eden Prairie-based quartz countertop maker Cambria, objected to what he felt was a heavy-handed federal approach.
The private sector mandate would have put companies like his "in a real pickle because you have HIPAA [health insurance] privacy laws and people's personal rights," Davis said. "As employers, we are trained and taught that the confidentiality of our people's health is important. As the fiduciary of a company, we take that very seriously."
A federal mandate would have thrown a wrench into that edict, Davis said, by requiring employers to demand to know employees' vaccination statuses and possibly firing those who didn't comply.
Cambria, with large factories in Le Sueur and Belle Plaine, employs 1,800 people. Davis said the company has spent more than $1 million to curtail COVID transmission, including temperature-scanning stations and offering on-site vaccination.
"I have been promoting vaccines wherever I can, but I am not going to force it on people," said Davis, who got vaccinated at work.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that he was disappointed in the Supreme Court ruling but asked U.S. companies to adopt their own vaccine mandates, adding nearly a third of all Fortune 100 companies already had done so.
Several U.S. corporations, CitiGroup, Mayo Clinic, Google and United Airlines, required workers to get vaccinated without government intervention. Only about 36% of U.S. employees have been required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, according to a December Gallup Poll.
Reactions were mixed Thursday from health care providers. Many hospitals have already committed to implementing the mandates while many nursing homes worry that a vaccine mandate will exacerbate longstanding staffing challenges in an industry hard hit by the pandemic.
Assisted-living providers won't have to comply, because they don't participate in the federal health care programs.
Going into Thursday's ruling, many operators felt it an "unwinnable situation," said Sean Nagle, a health law attorney with Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis. "At least this provides some clarity on what the rules are going to be."
Mayo Clinic says that about 99% of its more than 70,000 employees complied with a vaccine mandate that took effect in early January. Minneapolis-based Allina Health and St. Cloud-based CentraCare also had nearly identical compliance rates.
About 70% of nursing homes in the state are limiting admissions because they don't have enough staff — with a larger share in greater Minnesota, said Kari Thurlow, chief executive at LeadingAge Minnesota, a trade group for long-term care providers.
That has created a backlog at hospitals, with patients being kept longer since there isn't room at skilled-nursing facilities.
"While vaccination is a critical part of combating COVID-19 and we're very supportive of it, we do know the vaccine mandate could have the impact of us losing more staff at a time we are at critical crisis staffing levels in senior care settings," Thurlow said.
Health care providers will be watching to see if the federal government maintains the current deadline.
"While we remain optimistic that we are prepared for this, we do know that there are employees in our settings who are unvaccinated and may not qualify for an exemption," Thurlow said. "Given our current number of open positions, we can't risk to lose even one, so that's where we are very concerned."