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What the Supreme Court decision on workplace vaccine mandates means for Minnesota

State regulators said they wouldn't enforce the vaccine or testing requirement following the high court's ruling, but recommended that employers take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

generic vaccine shot photo
Health care providers in the Fargo-Moorhead area are starting to announce where and when authorized groups can receive COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.
WDAY file photo
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St. PAUL — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, Jan. 13, reversed a federal policy requiring workers at large employers to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or undergo regular testing for the illness.

And in Minnesota, that meant that state workplace safety regulators would suspend enforcement of the vaccine or testing rules "pending future developments." The rule would have affected almost 4,500 large employers in the state.

The 6-3 Supreme Court decision declared that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had overstepped its authority in issuing the guidance that employers of 100 people or more require the vaccination or testing.

Minnesota OSHA said that, in spite of the court's ruling, it still recommended that businesses continue to use requirements that keep "employees from a hazard that too often causes death or serious physical harm."

Business owners can still set guidelines for their workplaces that require vaccination if they choose. And some employers signaled that they would take that tack.

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The high court's ruling sparked an almost immediate reaction in Minnesota, with business groups and GOP lawmakers celebrating the decision while health care organizations and Democratic-Farmer-Labor leaders said it could fuel the additional spread of the omicron variant.

“We are pleased with the court’s restraint. We continue to believe that employers know best how to manage their workplaces, and keep employees and customers safe,” Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Doug Loon said in a news release. “Government mandates — whether federal, state, or local — are unnecessary, burdensome and often counterproductive.” 

Health officials this week reported the highest COVID-19 positivity rates since the pandemic took hold in Minnesota, in large part due to the highly contagious omicron variant. And they urged Minnesotans to continue taking precautions to prevent the spread of the illness.

Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday told reporters at an unrelated news conference that he disagreed with the court's ruling. The Walz administration last year set in place a vaccination or testing rule for state employees working in-person.

"I think they made the wrong decision, but that’s not for me to decide," the first-term DFL governor said.

A day after Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors announced that they would impose a vaccination or testing requirement to frequent bars or restaurants in the Twin Cities, city officials clarified that employees wouldn't be subject to the same standard due to the court's ruling. That rule is set to take effect next week.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a separate 5-4 ruling on Thursday upheld a rule requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for employees working in health care settings.

The state's largest health systems reported that they'd dismissed about 1% of their staff after they refused to comply with the COVID-19 vaccination requirements. And since laying off those employees due to the mandate, some had agreed to get vaccinated and return.

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CentraCare President and CEO Dr. Kenneth Holmen said that 40 of 120 employees that initially refused to be vaccinated later agreed and came back to work. Most of those who didn't want to get the shot worked outside of direct support roles, he said.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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