Although at least one local private employer is complying with COVID-19 vaccination requirements for workers President Joe Biden issued last week, it could be a while before local governments decide whether to follow suit and apply the mandate to government workers and public union employees.
This week, officials for the city of Janesville, Rock County and the public school districts of Janesville and Milton told The Gazette they’re waiting for more guidance from federal workplace rule makers. Biden’s new edict requiring COVID-19 vaccinations by large private employers and federal contract workers could apply to some 5,000 local government and school district workers.
Local officials want to know if Biden’s executive order requiring private workplaces with 100 or more workers to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or face a burden of routine COVID-19 testing is binding.
Biden’s vaccine action last week was immediately met with threats of rule-blocking lawsuits from some large corporations.
Yet Rock County’s largest private-sector employer, Mercyhealth, has issued orders that would require its 2,600-some workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 starting Oct. 15. Any Mercyhealth workers who aren’t granted a medical exemption would face routine fees for weekly COVID-19 testing, under new rules Mercyhealth released last week.
In an email this week, Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said the county has not yet taken a stance on how Biden’s new rule might impact the county’s nearly 1,200 workers. He said the county has not yet received official notice related to vaccine requirements for its workforce.
“Once we do receive direction, it is likely that there will be an implementation period to allow organizations time to become compliant,” Smith wrote.
Smith noted the likelihood Biden’s mandate will face legal challenges, which might slow its overall implementation. Smith said the county’s read is that Biden intends the mandate to be implemented through the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the main private workplace regulatory agency.
Smith said OSHA rules aren’t always applicable to county employees.
“Local governments in Wisconsin are not subject to OSHA rules directly, although it is possible that such rules would be incorporated into Wisconsin’s own Department of Safety and Professional Services (rules) depending on how and where federal language is drafted.”
Biden previously mandated full vaccination of staff at nursing homes funded under federal Medicaid and Medicare systems.
Earlier this year, Rock County moved to require its own Rock Haven nursing home to comply with the worker vaccination mandate. The move led to a few dozen noncompliant nursing home workers being laid off or quitting, and later two groups of workers threatened to sue Rock County over the mandate.
The workers have argued that the county couldn’t legally mandate a vaccine that hadn’t yet received full FDA approval for use.
In May, Rock County mostly repealed the vaccine mandate at Rock Haven. But since then, the FDA has issued full approval of the vaccine by drug maker Pfizer.
Smith said the county has made no move to undo its May 2021 ban on vaccine mandates. He said it’s likely the county won’t decide whether to revive the vaccine mandate at Rock Haven until formal rules and an implementation timeline on Biden’s vaccine action are issued.
Smith said he is aware that Rock Haven receives about $17 million a year in federal funding and future payments could be in jeopardy if a vaccine mandate isn’t enforced there.
“Our assessment of the ramifications of not implementing a vaccine requirement, if it does end up resulting in the loss of federal funding, has not changed,” Smith wrote. “We will have to see what the rule says to know for sure, though.”
City of Janesville spokesperson Nick Faust said the city’s administration hasn’t dug into Biden’s new mandate. Like Smith, Faust said the city likely will wait for formal rules and a timeline for implementation of Biden’s rule before taking action locally.
Some local residents are asking how the city intends to proceed. Former Janesville city council member Jim Farrell said he emailed current city council members last week after Biden’s announcement.
Farrell, who said he lost a close relative to COVID-19, said he asked the council if they want to require all city employees get vaccinated.
City officials in midsummer repealed an in-house masking mandate for all city workers, citing a 70% vaccination rate that at the time was significantly higher than the overall public vaccination rate in the U.S.
The city re-implemented its mask mandate last month after the city clerk-treasurer’s office was shut down for several days after a worker tested positive for COVID-19.
Farrell said the earlier closure of one office in city hall is concerning. He said city workers’ vaccination rate hasn’t increased much since earlier in the summer.
“There’d be 30% of workers that aren’t (vaccinated). That’s significant,” he said.
Janesville School District spokesperson Patrick Gasper said the district is not in a hurry to take a stance on Biden’s edict. Pending OSHA rules will make clear what public schools must require of their workers.
Gasper pointed out a vaccination mandate might be a moot point when it comes to Janesville schools employees. He said the district has an overall staff vaccination rate of “94% or 95%.”
Gasper said the few staff member who remained unvaccinated would probably continue to meet medical exemptions even under a full mandate.