MILWAUKEE — Businesses with more than 100 employees are scrambling to prepare for the U.S. Department of Labor’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Many questions remain about the mandate, including when it will go into effect and how it will be enforced.
The Department of Labor has yet to issue its guidance to businesses that are subject to the mandate, but it’s expected to be in place before the end of the year.
A new mandate announced by President Joe Biden ties 80 million Americans’ livelihoods to their willingness to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
The large business vaccine mandate comes with controversy, so TMJ4 News went ‘360’ to hear from several different perspectives: a public health expert who says the mandate may be our only way through the pandemic; Wisconsin’s manufacturer’s association that worries about the impacts this could have on the workforce; and workers on both sides of the issue who will be directly impacted. That’s where we’ll start.
Susan Heeley is an employee at a downtown Milwaukee business that has more than 100 employees.
“It’s very serious and people should be vaccinated if possible,” she said.
Heeley says she’s vaccinated and supports the mandate because she’d feel safer at work knowing her coworkers are protected against the virus.
“I think it’s very important because this is something we’ve never dealt with in the world before, and our government and governments around the world are working towards a public health issue which is the coronavirus,” she said.
A recent national poll from Axios-Ipsos found 60 percent of participants support the vaccine mandate. 39 percent oppose it, like Dora Harmon. The Milwaukee retail worker says she has no intention of getting vaccinated.
“I know some people who are getting the vaccine, but they’re either still catching COVID or they’re having side effects. So I just think it should be our choice,” she said.
Harmon says she’s willing to wear a mask at work and submit to regular testing if that’s what it takes to keep her job.
“I’d rather do that than to go through the vaccine and to prove a point, just like they’re trying to prove a point by pushing people to get the vaccine,” Harmon said.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce represents 3,800 businesses across the state. President and CEO Kurt Bauer says a majority of those businesses are frustrated by the requirement.
“While we’re pro-vaccine, we’re anti-mandate,” he said. “We’re very concerned our employers are going to be forced by the government to be the vaccine police of their workforce.”
Bauer says companies fear losing employees to smaller businesses that do not have to comply amid a worker shortage.
Bauer also thinks the enforcement aspect could be burdensome for businesses, too. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA, has yet to release its regulations, it plans to issue warnings and then fines of several thousand dollars per violation.
“I think those are crippling fines,” Bauer said. “I think it’s unfair. Again, the business community has stepped up during COVID-19. They have supported the community.”
Dr. John Raymond is the president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin. From a public health perspective, Dr. Raymond believes this vaccine mandate is a necessary tool during a tough stretch of the pandemic.
“Our hospitals are full right now, so I think it shows that vaccinating a little more than half of the population and 70 percent of the eligible adults isn’t enough,” he said.
The Medical College was one of the first employers in the state to mandate vaccines.
Dr. Raymond says just over 90 percent of employees have provided proof of vaccination ahead of its Nov. 1 deadline. The Medical College also received more than 100 religious exemption requisitions. Dr. Raymond says that’s a tenfold increase compared to previous annual influenza vaccine mandates.
“As an employer, what we’ve tried to tell people is we have an obligation to our learners and to the people who come on campus either to work or get clinical care to provide the safest possible environment for them, and that means vaccinating as many people as we can,” he said.
Dr. Raymond says a handful of MCW employees have already resigned. He believes the well-being of the economy depends on getting the pandemic under control.