Fargo-Moorhead employers taking wait-and-see approach with COVID-19 vaccine mandate
A federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate may soon be on the horizon for many Fargo-Moorhead area employers. Still, very few outside the healthcare field have gone as far as to implement one themselves, with many citing a need for more guidance.
FARGO — The COVID-19 pandemic has waxed and waned in the Red River Valley, but one theme has remained constant: very few employers in the Fargo-Moorhead area have gone as far as to require their employees to be vaccinated against the virus.
According to a January Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce survey of nearly 50 businesses , only 9% reported plans to require vaccination among employees. Three-of-four stated they would not require the vaccine, while 18% were unsure on the subject.
"A majority of our businesses are saying they are going to actively promote the vaccine in accordance with the CDC and the state guidelines," Chamber CEO Shannon Full told The Forum at the time. "They believe their role is to encourage employees to get the vaccine but it's not the businesses' or the private sector's job to require that vaccine."
Despite the emergence of the delta variant , an uptick in cases swarming local hospitals and many North Dakotans resisting the vaccine , most employers have not changed their stance on the subject of vaccinations in the workplace.
The Forum checked in with approximately 25 area employers to gauge where they stand on the issue of mandatory COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace. Few outside of the healthcare industry have decided to mandate the shot. Several others have encouraged the shot, but not gone as far as mandating it, or are seeking more guidance on the proposed federal vaccine mandate.
'The right thing to do'
Beyond the healthcare field, a small number of metro area employers have moved to require vaccinations.
Gray Television, the Atlanta-based company which operates Fargo’s KVLY television station, has required vaccines for employees who set foot on company property . Microsoft has also mandated vaccines for employees and vendors entering company facilities in the United States, with some exceptions.
Sanford led the mandate charge in the metro area in July, becoming the first notable employer to require its employees to be vaccinated . "It will be a condition of employment at Sanford Health," the healthcare provider’s chief physician Dr. Jeremy Cauwels remarked in July. "If you don’t have a religious exemption or otherwise, we will be requiring it to work at Sanford."
Eventide followed with a mandate of their own shortly thereafter , giving employees until Oct. 1 to get vaccinated. With the deadline now past, Eventide reported that 3.7% of employees opted to leave the company, while another 3.1% were granted an exemption from the requirement.
The 3.7% who opted to leave represented roughly 40 of Eventide 1,200 staff members across its Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo, Devils Lake and Jamestown locations.
Because Eventide’s senior population is at a greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, spokeswoman Carrie Carney said the vaccine mandate was the obvious choice. “We serve a high-risk, vulnerable population and we felt that this was the right thing to do,” she said.
While some quit due to the mandate, Eventide wasn’t caught by surprise. “After we announced the mandate, it gave us time to plan ahead,” Carney said, adding that Eventide recently implemented new wages to attract more employees.
Those new employees will also need to provide proof of vaccination, a policy which Carney said is here to stay for the time being. “At this point, it’ll stay implemented,” she said of the mandate.
Ethos Home Care and Hospice moved to require the COVID-19 vaccine among employees as well , also giving the 13% of their unvaccinated workforce until Oct. 1 to meet the mandate. Essentia has given employees until Nov. 1 to complete the two-dose sequence.
One or the other
Other metro area employers have given employees the option to either get vaccinated or be subjected to COVID-19 testing.
Fargo Cass Public Health’s employees either have to be vaccinated or be subject to twice-weekly COVID-19 rapid testing. They’re the only city employees who face such a requirement, city of Fargo spokesman Gregg Schildberger said.
Whether or not that may change depending on the pandemic’s progression would likely require input from the Fargo City Commission . “I think that would be a discussion for the city commission,” Schildberger said. “At this time, they haven’t talked about it, but it’s hard to say what’s going to be happening in two months.”
Desi Fleming, Fargo Cass Public Health's Director of Public Health, said the requirements were implemented recently since the proposed federal mandate has yet to materialize. "We knew that the federal mandates were coming out, but when they kind of seemed to stall out a little bit, we just went ahead and did that," she explained.
As a result of the new requirements, a number of those who were on the fence about the vaccine opted to get the shot to forgo the testing. "I think it had a positive effect that way as well," Fleming said.
Working in healthcare, employees saw the mandate coming, Fleming noted. "We haven’t had much push-back at all, it’s actually gone very smoothly," she said.
Fleming reported that 85% of the roughly 180 employees are vaccinated, with more in the process of being vaccinated. She predicted only a "very very small number" of employees would leave if a full vaccine mandate were implemented. "The majority of us believe very strongly in the vaccine and the safety and efficacy of it," she said.
At Minnesota State University Moorhead, employees who work on campus or away from home need to be fully vaccinated or submit to at least weekly testing .
Awaiting more guidance
With the possibility of a federal vaccine mandate for employers with over 100 employees , many hold-outs in the area are awaiting more information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
A report from the Chamber estimated that 130 employers in the metro area will be subjected to the mandate . All indications are that the majority of those employers are waiting for more guidance before proceeding.
Both the city of Moorhead and city of West Fargo said they’re still evaluating the ramifications of the possible mandate.
A spokeswoman for Butler Machinery echoed the sentiment, saying the company is preparing for several possible scenarios. "At this time we are still navigating what this looks like for our organization if it becomes federally mandated,” Sarah Olsgaard said. “We are exploring multiple options, but have made no decisions yet."
While most employees have been receptive to the COVID-19 vaccine , Concordia College spokeswoman Candace Harmon reported the college is waiting for OSHA guidelines to change before making any decisions.
Other employers who are either encouraging but not requiring the vaccine for all employees or seeking more guidance from OSHA include American Crystal Sugar, Barnes & Noble, Doosan Bobcat, Family Fare, Gate City Bank, North Dakota State University, RDO, Target, Walmart and Wells Fargo.
Forum Communications Company, which operates The Forum, currently does not require employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and is monitoring the potential impact of OSHA's vaccine mandate.
For now, OSHA strongly recommends the vaccine , though fines for violating the possible mandate could reach nearly $14,000.
The mandate is expected to face legal challenges. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum called the mandate a "blatant federal overreach” and said he was consulting the state Attorney General’s Office on the possibility of suing the federal government .
On the employee side of the issue, North Dakota AFL-CIO president Landis Larson said employees have had a varied response.
While some employees would no doubt be disappointed to see their employer implement a mandate, they’ll likely be powerless to stop it. “I think the people that wanted to be vaccinated got vaccinated as soon as they could,” Larson said. “I don’t know that it helps in a lot of situations because people are so polarized over it, but I know there’s a lot of precedent that makes it possible for employers to do that.”
Even in a union setting, employees will likely only be able to negotiate the “cause and effects” of the mandate, Larson said, meaning union workers can bargain for time off to receive the vaccine and time off should they experience any negative side-effects. “I don’t know that they really have the ability to stop the mandate,” he continued.
Some employers, he noted, have been better than others at implementing COVID-19 safety measures in the workplace. “It seems to depend on what they want to believe about COVID,” he said.
For those who are either weighing a mandate or will be impacted by a potential federal mandate, Larson suggested that employers offer time off for their employees to get the shot and support them if they experience any difficulties.
While some workers in vaccine-reluctant North Dakota may decide to quit over a mandate, for others, it’ll push them to get vaccinated. “I think it would probably help some of those that are a little bit hesitant, but there’s some people who it’s not going to change their minds,” Larson remarked.