Thousands of Minnesota companies now have to decide: With no federal vaccine mandate, should they do it themselves?
On Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court blocked an effort by the federal government to force mid- and large-sized U.S. employers to implement vaccine-or-test requirements for their workers. While the decision lifts the regulatory pressure on employers that many found burdensome, it also leaves companies wanting to impose a mandate without a scapegoat.
The ruling removed "the cover large companies would have to impose a vaccine requirement," said Andrew Challenger, a senior vice president at the search and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.
Employers with opposing camps in their workforces regarding vaccination will now have to choose their battle.
While many workers were uncomfortable with their employers forcing them to get vaccinated, others — citing a virus that has killed more than 800,000 Americans in less than two years — are uncomfortable returning to work if they don't know the status of co-workers near them.
"A much larger percentage of the workforce is concerned about safety than is opposed to the vaccines. They just don't have a tendency to be a very loud group, but there's a lot of anxiety that people are experiencing about the safety of themselves and their family," said Dr. Mary Kay O'Neill, a partner in the health benefits practice at Mercer.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirement, which the majority of justices voted to block, applied to companies with 100 or more employees. State officials estimate that would have included about 4,500 businesses that collectively employ 1.4 million Minnesotans.
Even with the court's ruling, employers remain responsible to provide a safe workplace, O'Neill said. They want to be responsive to worker concerns about safety, she said, and need a healthy workforce that won't suffer from continued staffing outages.
Employers are now in three camps: those that will voluntarily adopt a vaccine mandate; those without a work-from-home option (such as manufacturing, retail, transportation and logistics) that will continue to encourage, but not require vaccination; and those that will delay return-to-office plans.
Some Minnesota companies have yet to choose a clear path as they weigh conflicting beliefs among workers.
John Phipps, who works in the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, expressed mixed feelings about the government's vaccine mandate efforts during his lunch break Friday in a downtown Minneapolis food court.
"I definitely wouldn't feel comfortable in the office without the mandate," said Phipps, who says he is "conservative" but doesn't identify with either political party. "But I also don't believe in forced vaccinations. It is tough to reconcile. ... I do feel safer knowing my co-workers are vaccinated."
Phipps, who is vaccinated and recently made an appointment for a booster shot, said, "I believe people have nonpolitical reasons for not getting vaccinated — fear being the primary one. Also misinformation."
Several companies, like Bayport-based Andersen Windows and Doors, are straddling the line with creative approaches.
Andersen's existing 6,000 Minnesota workers don't have to be vaccinated, but all new hires do. And to qualify for its newly enhanced 2022 profit-sharing plan, which promises workers up to $4,000 per year, employees must be vaccinated.
"[Profit sharing] was redesigned to further the company's commitment to protecting the health of its employees and contributing to the global effort to combat the virus," said Andersen spokeswoman Aliki Vrohidis.
The effort is expected to reduce business disruptions from the virus and help attract new talent, she said.
Other businesses have chosen a more straightforward approach.
Minneapolis-based Graco, with 1,500 Minnesota workers, said it's canceling plans to require vaccines or weekly testing and will terminate all data collection of employees' vaccination statuses.
In contrast, the Plymouth candy maker Maud Borup, with 200 workers in Plymouth and Le Center, will continue its vaccine or weekly test mandates.
"With the new Supreme Court decision, nothing has changed and we are not sure if anything is going to change," said spokeswoman Karen Edwards.
Right now, "people are either vaccinated or they do the weekly testing. If you have a medical condition or a religious exemption, you still have to provide us your test results that are negative each week in order to work here," Edwards said.
Emily Dickens, chief of staff for the 400-employee Society for Human Resource Management, said the Supreme Court decision isn't expected to unravel the plans of companies that already require employee vaccinations against COVID-19.
"Employers that were able to institute mandates have a certain culture and employee base that were supportive," she said.
Eduardo Salgado Diaz, an attorney who joined the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office in August, said he's grateful his employer — the county — instituted a vaccine requirement in December. Salgado Diaz, 31, said he tries to minimize contact by coming into the office most days around 6 a.m. and leaving by early afternoon.
Claudia Dunn, a legal assistant at the Moss & Barnett law firm in downtown Minneapolis, said she wishes the Supreme Court ruling had gone the other way to give employers political cover to implement a rule that would be unpopular with many people.
"It's something you can hide behind," said Dunn, 22. "Then you can say you had no choice."
Still others, like Kamali Chambers, resist employment-based mandates.
"You should have the choice. If you are told to get the vaccine or lose your job, that is coercion," said Chambers, a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual who has yet to get the shot. His company has not required vaccines and he is comfortable with that.
mployment experts say businesses could risk losing workers regardless of which direction they take.
"Job seekers, who have the upper hand in a tight labor market with record numbers of job openings, will use companies' vaccine policies to make decisions on which jobs to take," Challenger said.
It's a particularly tough time for setting vaccine policies, said Jack Sullivan, an employment adviser and litigator in Minneapolis with Dorsey & Whitney.
"The people who otherwise would be thinking through that policy right now are overwhelmed with absences and call outs and just the number of people right now who are sick," he said. "People are just trying to get through this current storm."