Several Joplin-area employers say they are waiting for more information about a recently announced federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate before taking action with their employees, while many in the state’s Republican-led government pledge to push back against the mandate.
President Joe Biden last week announced that the U.S. Labor Department is working to require businesses with 100 or more employees to order those workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or show a negative test result at least weekly.
Some 100 million workers would be subject to the requirement, Biden said. The Labor Department is working to issue an emergency rule to implement the mandate.
In Missouri, Republican officials were quick to denounce the mandate. Gov. Mike Parson said his office was working with the state Legislature and attorney general’s office to prepare for a “pending legal fight.”
“Missouri will not be a pawn in this publicity stunt that seeks to force Missourians to disclose private health care decisions and dictate private business operations,” he said in a statement.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that it continues to “strongly encourage” vaccinations in workplaces, but it believes Biden’s mandate is the “wrong approach” for businesses.
“Each workplace is different, and employers have long held the right to establish vaccine policies that work for their businesses,” said Daniel P. Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “The Missouri chamber believes all employers should continue to have this right when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.”
The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce said that because details about the order are not yet fully known, chamber staff does not know how it will affect local businesses and has not heard from any members on the issue, spokesperson Erin Slifka said.
In a statement, officials with Joplin-based Liberty said they were closely following developments related to Biden’s strategy.
“According to the announcement, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is developing the rule related to employers with more than 100 employees. Liberty has approximately 940 employees in the Central Region, which includes Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma,” the statement said. “At Liberty, we prioritize safety above all else. This includes keeping our employees, customers and communities safe. We will continue to comply with applicable state and federal laws and regulations and practice the safety protocols we have in place, including those related to COVID-19, while we await additional guidance from OSHA.”
Officials with Freeman Health System say the hospital will follow the rules once they are set. While the hospital has encouraged staff to get vaccinated, it has not yet required it.
“We will comply with the rules when they are finalized,” said CEO and President Paula Baker in a statement. “Freeman Health System staff have seen the value of the vaccine on their own and have been proactive in receiving it.”
Many other large employers in Joplin and the region did not comment when asked about their plans or whether they think there is a better path forward.
For some employers, such as Tyson Foods, the mandate is a moot point. Tyson is among the major employers that had already announced a vaccine requirement for all workers.
Tyson said in August that vaccinations would be required for each of its 120,000 U.S. employees. Office workers will need to be vaccinated by Oct. 1, and production workers by Nov. 1, said Derek Burleson, Tyson Foods spokesperson. At the time, about 56,000 members of its workforce had been vaccinated. That has nearly doubled in the past six weeks.
“As of Sept. 14, almost 100,000 of our U.S. workforce has received now at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. “We’ve certainly made a lot of progress.”
Besides offering cash incentives, providing vaccines on-site and time off for vaccinations, he said the company has been having success using “one-on-one conversations with team members who may be hesitant.”
Tyson has about 1,500 employees at its Noel complex, about 600 workers in Monett and 5,600 total across Missouri, including its plant in Sedalia. The Noel plant was the site of an outbreak last year as hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. The company, which is based in Springdale, Arkansas, has 12,000 workers in Benton and Washington counties.
Mercy also has announced plans to require vaccines for employees, as have some area nursing homes.
“This decision is about protecting our patients,” said Jeremy Drinkwitz, president of Mercy Hospital Joplin, in a statement. “We’re responsible for keeping our patients safe. It’s the right thing for our co-workers to protect each other. It’s what the Sisters of Mercy, who have served Joplin for almost 125 years, would expect us to do.”
Walmart officials did not return calls for comment this week, but the retailer said this summer that vaccinations would be required for workers at its Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters, as well as for managers who travel, but at the time it had not announced plans to require vaccines for most store employees.
With dozens of stores in the region, and many others who commute to its headquarters, Walmart is one of the largest employers in Southwest Missouri.
Government and public employees
Many also are awaiting guidance on whether government and public-sector employers will be included in Biden’s mandate.
In his statement, Parson said he “will not allow state employees to be used to enforce this unconstitutional action” because Missouri is not under an OSHA state plan.
Joplin city officials have not yet determined how or whether the Biden order will affect city employees. About one-third of the 632 employed by the city of Joplin have been vaccinated voluntarily.
“Internally, the city’s management team has had some preliminary conversations about President Biden’s executive order and how it could affect the city’s workforce,” City Manager Nick Edwards said. “More information is needed before any decisions can be made at this point.”
Missouri Southern State University officials said the vaccine mandate won’t apply to their institution, but it will be considered in the months ahead.
“This is obviously very new, but we do not view this as a mandate that will be enforced at this time,” said a statement issued on behalf of the university. “We are viewing it more as a road map of where the administration intends to go in the coming months. We will need to listen to the narrative in the short term to ensure that our interpretation is correct and start contemplating how we will comply if mandates are implemented.”
The Joplin School District also is among the public entities awaiting further guidance, Superintendent Melinda Moss said. The district reported last week that there were 648 fully vaccinated staff and 69 substitutes participating in its vaccine incentive program.
“The impact of Biden’s announcement for Missouri schools remains to be seen,” Moss said. “At this time, Joplin Schools has no plans to mandate vaccines nor weekly testing for all unvaccinated employees.”
Across the state line, Abigail Fern, chief marketing and communication officer for Pittsburg (Kansas) State University, said OSHA does not have jurisdiction over Pitt State, an agency of the state of Kansas.
“We will await guidance from the Kansas Department of Labor,” Fern said in a statement. “The provision in the most recent Kansas budget bill banning vaccine passports has prohibited Pitt State from enforcing a vaccine mandate on our campus.”