Private employers in Mississippi wary of new federal vaccine mandate

Published 5:53 am Friday, November 5, 2021

A new COVID-19 vaccine mandate could create additional challenges for businesses, local employers said.

Tens of millions of Americans who work at companies with 100 or more employees will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or get tested for the virus weekly, according to a mandate issued by President Joe Biden on Thursday.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations will force the companies to require that unvaccinated workers test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week and wear a mask while in the workplace, the associated press reports.

Those who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from Medicare and Medicaid will not have the option to be tested weekly and will need to be vaccinated. Workers will be able to ask for exemptions on medical or religious grounds.

TJ Baggett, chief human resources officer at Loss Prevention Services LLC whose headquarters moved to Natchez last year, said until now the company has taken the stance that employees could choose to be vaccinated or not.

She added that the company shouldn’t have problems complying whatever federal regulations are put in place but expressed concerns about how COVID tests would be provided to employees in the private sector

“(The mandate) is something that has been on our radar,” she said. “I know there is a lot of pushback from both parties and I’m curious to see where this will go. The pandemic has been such a challenge to all large and small employers.”

The federal government’s regulations do not require employers to pay for the tests but there are no specifications for how tests should be provided.

“We’ve taken the stance that it should be a choice. If the federal government mandates something of this magnitude, then there would have to be facilities that pop up to offer that service. I can’t see that burden being placed on businesses,” she said.

Loss Prevention employees approximately 130 people in Natchez, about half of whom are vaccinated, Baggett said.

“We have a transparent communication and encourage employees to speak freely about their feelings and fears as part of our culture here. I would say we have a 50-50 ratio of employees who would opt for vaccination or weekly testing. None have said they would not do either,” she said.

Baggett said while employees are currently not penalized for not being vaccinated, they’ve established a relationship with Ernst Pharmacy to encourage them to do so.

Loss Prevention has also taken several proactive measures and has “aggressively and successfully” worked keep them safe, she said.

“We’re on a very stringent COVID-19 preparedness plan. All of our employees wear masks, all of our desks are more than six feet apart and we do daily self-checks. We also have UV components that clean and filter the air. I would say we’ve done a nice job at mitigating the spread of the virus.”

Dan Feibus, CEO at the Vidalia Mills denim plant in Vidalia, La., said the company is just under the 100-person threshold with 94 employed currently. Like Loss Prevention, Feibus said company leaders are not requiring employees to get vaccinated but are encouraging it.

“What we’ve done is give people a day off to get vaccinated and another day off to recover but we haven’t mandated it,” he said. “If it applies to us, we have to follow the law.”

Area healthcare workers have attributed sharp decline of severe COVID-19 cases to the vaccine and its effectiveness.

Last week, Merit Health Natchez CEO Garett May announced to the Rotary Club of Natchez that the hospital had reached its zero COVID-19 patient milestone.

Likewise, Keisha Smith, CEO of Trinity Medical Center said the hospital on U.S. 84 in Ferriday, La., also has no COVID-19 positive patients admitted but continues to see and treat COVID patients in clinics and offers Regeneron Antibody Infusion treatments.

“We attribute the sharp decline in cases to patients getting vaccinated and wearing their masks,” she said. “Trinity Medical is offering first and second doses along with booster shots for both Phizer and Moderna at our Trinity Medical Clinic.”

The new requirements, which were first previewed by Biden in September, will apply to about 84 million workers at medium and large businesses, although it is not clear how many of those employees are unvaccinated.

OSHA left open the possibility of expanding the requirement to smaller businesses. It asked for public comment on whether employers with fewer than 100 employees could handle vaccination or testing programs.

Tougher rules will apply to another 17 million people who work in nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from Medicare and Medicaid. Those workers will not have an option for testing — they will need to be vaccinated.

Workers will be able to ask for exemptions on medical or religious grounds.

Biden framed the issue as a simple choice between getting more people vaccinated or prolonging the pandemic.

“While I would have much preferred that requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good,” he said Thursday in a statement.

Biden said his encouragement for businesses to impose mandates and his own previous requirements for the military and federal contractors have helped reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans over 12 from 100 million in late July to about 60 million now.
Those measures, he said, have not led to mass firings or worker shortages, adding that vaccines have been required before to fight other diseases.

OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the regulations could face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.

It was unclear how OSHA planned to enforce the rules: Even counting allied regulators at the state level, the agency has only 1,850 inspectors to oversee 130 million workers at 8 million workplaces. A senior administration official said OSHA will target companies if it gets complaints.

The release of the rules followed weeks of regulatory review and meetings with business groups, labor unions and others. The regulations form the cornerstone of Biden’s most

aggressive effort yet to combat the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 740,000 people in the U.S.

OSHA drafted the rules under emergency authority meant to protect workers from an imminent health hazard. The agency estimated that the vaccine mandate will save more than 6,500 worker lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations over the next six months. Senior administration officials said the rules preempt conflicting state laws or orders, including those that ban employers from requiring vaccinations, testing or the wearing of face masks. The administration will face an immediate challenge from Republican state officials who are eager to fight Biden in court and in Congress. Senate Republicans immediately launched a petition to force a vote to overturn the vaccine mandate, but with Democrats controlling the chamber, the effort is nearly certain to fail.

More than two dozen Republicans serving as state attorneys general have indicated they plan to sue, arguing that only Congress can enact such sweeping requirements under emergency authority.

Last week, 19 states sued to stop Biden’s narrower mandate that employees of federal contractors be vaccinated. That requirement was scheduled to take effect Dec. 8, but the administration said Thursday it will be delayed until Jan. 4 to match the requirements on other large employers and health care providers.