Minnesota employers, many of whom had been wary of instituting vaccine mandates of their own, were scrambling on Friday to understand how and when they will have to implement new federal guidelines that will require them to do just that.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced sweeping new federal regulations that will require employers with more than 100 workers to require immunizations or weekly testing. It's a big move aimed at curbing the recent surge in COVID cases and hospitalizations mostly among the unvaccinated.
In Minnesota, the new orders will affect about 4,800 businesses which employ about 1.4 million Minnesotans, according to Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). That is about half of the state's total workforce.
Amid a tight labor market, many employers have been reluctant to mandate vaccines, fearing it might push some people to leave their jobs or create more trouble for hiring managers to fill open positions, said Jessica Roe, an employment defense attorney in Minneapolis.
"I think what the president is doing maybe makes it a little bit easier for an employer," she said. "Before [Biden's] mandate, if you mandated vaccines, employees said: 'Well, we're going to go elsewhere.' Now, there may be fewer 'elsewheres' to go."
Still, many employers had lots of questions Friday about how these new requirements will be rolled out. Some smaller firms wondered if they'll be covered by the rule, Roe said, while larger employers are considering how they'll keep track of employees' vaccine status, among other things.
For Maplewood-based 3M, it was a clear directive.
"We intend to comply with the mandate," the company said in a statement. "We're a federal contractor with more than 100 employees. And as we have for the past several months, we are strongly encouraging our employees to become vaccinated."
In recent months, companies have tried various strategies to promote vaccination, but mandates gained more traction after federal regulators granted full approval to the vaccine from Pfizer in August. Those that implemented mandates have seen modest results.
Minneapolis-based M Health Fairview announced a mandate this summer, and gave employees a deadline of Oct. 31 either to get vaccinated or face termination. Its vaccination rate has grown from 76% at the time of the early August announcement to more than 80%, Fairview said.
"The vast majority of COVID patients hospitalized in the M Health Fairview system are unvaccinated," Fairview said in a statement. "We support the president's executive order, because overwhelming evidence demonstrates the COVID-19 vaccines are very safe and they dramatically reduce the chance of spreading disease, hospitalization, severe illness and death."
The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis announced in July that it would require its 1,000 employees in downtown Minneapolis to get vaccinated as a condition of employment.
Neel Kashkari, the regional bank's president, said the mandate as gone over "very well." Most of its employees were already vaccinated, but it pushed some to get the shot.
"We have a number of employees who were insisting they were not going to get vaccinated who are now vaccinated and we're grateful for them doing that," Kashkari said. "We've had a handful of employees — and it's a handful — who decided to go work somewhere else and we respect their choice."
Many companies said Friday that they were still awaiting details on the new regulations.
"Our current position has been to strongly recommend both masks and vaccines," said Michael Fischer, chief human resources officer of Radisson Hotel Group Americas, which has 225 employees at its Minnetonka office. "But much has changed in the last 24 hours with Biden putting out mandates. That is under evaluation as we determine what the details are now with that dictate."
Others, including U.S. Bancorp and Xcel Energy, said Friday that they would continue to focus on ways to encourage their employees to get inoculated while seeking more understanding of the new requirements.
In an interview last week with the Star Tribune, Jacqueline Williams-Roll, chief human resources officer at General Mills, said the company was "strongly, strongly encouraging vaccination" but not yet requiring it. Neither was it centrally tracking vaccinations among its 35,000 global workforce at that time.
Responding to the uncertainties of the pandemic has shown the importance of being flexible, Williams-Roll said.
"You must be willing to make decisions based on the information you have today, fully acknowledging that you may get more new information the next hour, the next day that requires you to pivot," she said.
Minneapolis-based Target, which employs more than 400,000 workers in the U.S., declined to comment Friday. Throughout the last year, it has partnered with its CVS locations within the majority of its stores to offer vaccines to customers and workers.
Richfield-based Best Buy, which also declined to comment, launched an employee sweepstakes over the summer in which 21 workers were selected to win $5,000 each in cash prizes with proof of vaccination.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will issue guidelines for exactly how employers should implement the requirement.
Questions remain about how a vaccine-or-testing requirement can ensure workplace safety as comprehensively as a full vaccine mandate, said Susan Ellingstad, an employment law attorney in Minneapolis with Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP.
"I don't think it's safer, because you're still going to have a concern that a weekly test is not going to be as protective," Ellingstad said. "So, then you're still going to have to think about, with respect to those [who are unvaccinated], do you use other protective measures like masks or do you continue remote" work for those employees?
Even so, Biden's announcement is important, Ellingstad said, because it gives employers cover for introducing policies that promote vaccination when previously they might have hesitated for fear of losing employees or facing lawsuits.
Employers need to start thinking about staffing plans to cover absences for those newly getting vaccinated, consultants at New York-based Mercer wrote in a Friday report. And for workers who go the testing route, companies must think through what testing method they want to use and who will pay for them if the government doesn't.
"Now the question of whether to require vaccinations has been settled, giving way to a long list of questions about how to do it," the consultants advised. "Employers that have not already begun laying the groundwork for a vaccine mandate will need to act swiftly."
Staff writers Dee DePass, Mike Hughlett and Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.