Understanding federal vax mandates: How big businesses, health care workers will have to comply

Local Coronavirus Coverage

TRI-CITIES, Tenn./Va. (WJHL) – Millions of workers who are employed by large businesses or work in healthcare could soon have to make the decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or (for some) submit to weekly testing and donning a face covering when at work.

Locally, some businesses like Citigroup announced that employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment. This would impact hundreds of workers in the Tri-Cities who work for Citibank both at the Gray location, as well as those who work from home for the call center.

Other local groups, like the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, have signed joint statements with the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce detailing its support for COVID-19 vaccines, just not the mandating of those vaccines. You can view the full statement HERE.

Johnson City-based Crown Laboratories has just over 200 employees. Crown President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Bedard told News Channel 11 that roughly 60% of his employees are vaccinated.

“Are mandates the right way to deal with the unvaccinated population? This is such an un-well-thought-out mandate by our government that it’s putting businesses at risk,” he said.

He said there are a number of obstacles that still need to be overcome before he would consider implementing the vaccine mandate, like if there is going to be any litigation.

“If 40% of those had to go away, that would be a significant hit, not only to the local economy, because these are high-paying jobs, but also would put the company at high-risk.”

Bedard added that his number one concern is what exactly the testing requirements would be, other than his unvaccinated employees would have to be tested weekly. He said no guidance has been shared on whether the testing would be PCR or rapid test, or if workers would be able to take the tests home as opposed to taking the tests in front of a health care provider.

One of the region’s largest employers, Eastman Chemical Company, confirmed with News Channel 11 Thursday that no vaccine mandate has yet been implemented and no plan has yet been put in place to implement one.

“Now that OSHA released the COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard, we are working to fully understand the impact for our U.S. Eastman team members. We have a team in place and will be working through the details throughout the next several days as we understand procedures that must be in place for our unvaccinated team members by January 4.

As far as vaccination mandates at Eastman, we have no plans at this time to make vaccination mandatory for our team members. We continue to encourage vaccination as the safest and most effective way to prevent complications and hospitalization from COVID-19 and we continue to see the percentages of fully vaccinated team members increase across our US sites.”

Eastman Chemical Company

With roughly 275 employees, Bank of Tennessee falls squarely under the mandate.

CEO Will Barrett said the bank’s human resources team is reviewing the massive OSHA ruling. That doesn’t mean the company will be mandating employee vaccinations any time soon, he said.

Even setting up a testing regimen for unvaccinated employees isn’t likely to occur right away, though planning may be in the works.

“We’re in a digest mode and waiting to see the reactions and any challenges,” Barrett said.

Barrett said 64% of Bank of Tennessee employees are vaccinated.

Federal employees have had to comply with a vaccine mandate since September and East Tennessee State University reported Thursday it has less than 100 of those employees.

A spokesperson for the university said in a statement that its Human Resources Department “has contacted those employees individually notifying them of the requirement.”

The statement continued saying ETSU is “encouraging all unvaccinated employees to consider getting the vaccine knowing that we may have to comply, to some greater extent, with the vaccine mandate.”

On another level, Kingsport City Schools is preparing for how the district will approach the new guidance. Assistant Superintendent Andy True sent the following statement to News Channel on behalf of KCS:

“We’re currently reviewing the federal guidance released today regarding vaccinations and analyzing how that information may impact current and future KCS procedures and policies.”

Andy True, Assistant Superintendent of Kingsport City Schools

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released an over 200-page document listing requirements for any hospital, home health agency, long-term care facility, and some other health care providers Thursday requiring they be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022, without a masking and weekly-testing option.

CMS also required that “facilities covered by this regulation must establish a policy ensuring all eligible staff have received the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine or a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine prior to providing any care, treatment, or other services by December 5, 2021.”

Ballad Health released a statement Thursday indicating that the hospital system is still devising its vaccine policy.

The statement reads in part:

“More than 70% of Ballad Health patients are those who depend on government insurance, such as Medicare and Medicaid. As a result, Ballad Health is drafting a policy to be implemented that is compliant with the rules. Ballad Health must comply with federal rules for participation in the Medicare program, or we risk jeopardizing the very existence of our hospitals and other critical services needed to serve our region.

Ballad Health has articulated very clearly our concerns this mandate could have on staffing for the needs of our region during a time where the nation, and rural regions in particular, suffer from the worst clinical staffing shortage in history. We remain concerned this will negatively affect service and our ability to respond to the medical needs of our region, though we have no choice but to comply.”  

Ballad Health

In a nearly 500-page document, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Thursday released emergency temporary standards (ETS) regarding the federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate for large employers, federal contractors, and health-related workers.

The regulations released Thursday by OSHA detailed that “employers must develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy by January 4th, with an exception for employers that instead adopt a policy requiring employees to either get vaccinated or elect to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work in lieu of vaccination.”

The ETS details that companies would have to comply with all provisions within 30 days after the Jan. 4, 2022, deadline. The one exception would be for employees who choose to not get fully vaccinated. Employers would then be required to ensure those employees comply with the required weekly COVID-19 testing within 60 days of the deadline.

The regulations detail that those employees who choose to remain unvaccinated would also need to be protected against the spread of COVID-19 “through required regular testing, use of face coverings, and removal of infected employees from the workplace, and to protect other workers from the greater likelihood that unvaccinated workers may spread COVID-19 in the workplace.”

Because the COVID-19 vaccine is free, OSHA determined that if an employee chooses not to comply with the vaccine mandate, that worker would bear the costs of the weekly testing.

“This ETS is designed to strongly encourage vaccination because vaccination is the most efficient and effective control for protecting unvaccinated workers from the grave danger posed by COVID-19,” the OSHA document detailed.

Employers are required by OSHA to ensure that employees understand the requirements when enforcing the vaccine mandate.

“The ETS cannot be effective if employees do not have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the requirements of the ETS, their employers’ policies and procedures, information about available COVID-19 vaccines, their protections against retaliation and discrimination, and the potential penalties for knowingly providing false information to their employer,” the document established.

The CMS and OSHA regulations provide for medical and religious exemptions.

To view the full OSHA document, which is to be placed on the Federal Register on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, CLICK HERE. To read the full CMS document, also to be placed on the Federal Register Friday, CLICK HERE.

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