State, federal government at odds over vaccine mandates for private employers

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

President Joe Biden announced Thursday afternoon that he will impose new stringent vaccine and testing requirements for federal workers and for all employers with more than 100 employees. 

The announcement comes as coronavirus continues to rip through Idaho, filling hospitals to maximum capacity. Northern Idaho hospitals have already reached crisis standards of care because they do not have the resources to treat every person in need of health care.

The new requirements could apply to as many as 100 million Americans, according to the White House. 

Biden, like many local physicians, called the scenario “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said . “It’s about protecting the people around you.”

All nursing home or home health care workers who treat patients on Medicare or Medicaid, about 17 million people, will also be required to be vaccinated.

Under the federal Head Start program, all educators will be required to get vaccines as well.

Employers will be required to give employees paid time off to leave work to be vaccinated.

According to the Idaho Department of Labor, Idaho has 781 private covered employers with more than 100 employees. Those businesses employ a combined total of 203,000 people. With government employers included, there are 980 employers with 266,000 employees in Idaho. 

Should Biden’s requirement take place, many if not most of those people would be required to have a COVID-19 vaccine or comply with weekly testing.

The state has seen controversy in recent weeks, as three major health care systems — St. Luke’s, Saint Alphonsus, and Primary Health — announced all employees must have the vaccine or they would be terminated.

Micron Technology Inc. also required vaccines or weekly testing. Those who don’t get vaccinated and who work in person at Micron’s U.S. locations will have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

As recently as last week, St. Luke’s Health System doctors maintained they support the vaccination policy for the safety of staff and the patients.

Several lawmakers and state officials have called on the Speaker of the House to reconvene the legislature to address the issue. 

On Wednesday, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, wrote a letter to the body. 

In the letter, Bedke wrote “First, I believe that the decision of whether to get a COVID vaccination, or any other vaccination or medical procedure, is a decision that should be made by each individual, in close consultation with his or her medical provider. It is my understanding that all the businesses requiring vaccines are offering medical exemptions; that only increases the importance of people working with their medical providers to determine if the vaccine is right for them.” 

He went on to write that Idahoans have reluctance to see government involvement in the private sector. 

“I am troubled by the prospect of injecting government control into the private sector if a better solution is available,” Bedke wrote.

He said he did not support reconvening the legislature to address the issue with an open-ended agenda. 

“Having said that, if there were a narrow piece of legislation that enjoyed the unequivocal support of at least 36 members of the House and the unequivocal support of at least 18 members of the Senate, I would coordinate with the President Pro Tempore to bring the entire legislature into session to address a mutually supported draft bill. Anything else would be an unacceptable waste of taxpayer money.”

Bedke is running for the Lieutenant Governor’s seat in 2022, as current Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is running for governor. 

McGeachin has been especially vocal about not mandating vaccines, even holding a press conference in July in support of health care workers who do not want to be vaccinated. 

Idaho is a “work at will” state, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. “At will” means there is no set length of time for an employment relationship, and either the employer or the employee may end the relationship at any time with or without notice and with or without cause. As long as the employer is not terminating an employee due to retaliation or discrimination, the employer does not need a reason to fire a person. 

Because hospitals are private employers, they can legally terminate a person who declines to be vaccinated. 

In a recent newsletter, McGeachin wrote, “ Why is Governor Little allowing companies to force vaccinate Idahoans when the data is clear that they may be significantly worse off health-wise if they get vaccinated?”

That statement is inaccurate. The COVID-19 vaccine has been proven to be incredibly safe and effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. Over 200 million Americans have now received at least one dose. 

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that we don’t know much about the virus or the vaccine,” McGeachin wrote. “People have a right to be skeptical about getting ‘vaxxed.’ It’s a personal choice and I don’t believe the government or any private entity should be forcing people to take a chemical that has bypassed all the normal safety and testing procedures, which often take years to properly conduct.”

On Thursday, Biden said he also wants to expand testing capacity and encourage governors to mandate masks be worn. The Transportation and Safety Administration will also double fines for travelers who refuse to comply with masking requirements.

After Biden’s announcement, Little wrote on Twitter, “Today’s actions from President Biden amount to government overreach. Government should stay out of decisions involving employers and their employees as much as possible. I’ve advocated for and championed fewer government regulations and mandates on business.”

Little issued a follow-up Tweet, saying “I still urge Idahoans to choose safe and effective ways to protect themselves from COVID-19 for the continued health and prosperity of the people of Idaho.”

As Biden made his announcement, McGeachin issued a Tweet saying “WE WILL NOT COMPLY!”

Idaho Reports will update this post as we learn more from the state.

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