Local government agencies expect federal order to require staff vaccination, testing

Officials at multiple local governments and schools expect they will have to require staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly in accordance with a recent federal order.

The executive order from President Joe Biden generally requires any employer with a staff of 100 or more to have those employees be vaccinated or provide proof of a negative test each week. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was tasked with fleshing out the rule’s regulations, which have yet to be released.

Dubuque County officials expect the county government to qualify for the requirement and are preliminarily planning what implementation might include.

County Human Resources Director Dawn Sherman said she has been attending trainings and conversations with other counties’ HR leaders to determine the order’s impact. She told the Board of Supervisors this week that because Dubuque County has a staff more than 100, it would be subject to the order as an employer.

“It’s not going to be about employees per location,” she said. “It’s going to be your total payroll. We do well exceed that.”

However, Sherman said there are more questions than answers about implementation of the order.

“We’re awaiting the guidance for federal regulations,” she said. “If (staff) choose not to receive vaccination, they would be subject to weekly testing. They would need to provide documentation to us that they had weekly negative testing. But there’s no guidance on what type of tests they will require, who is responsible for the cost of the weekly testing.”

Sherman said she and her peers in other counties expect that exemptions will be possible for religious and medical reasons.

Supervisor Harley Pothoff voiced his opposition to the order, saying such requirements should be up to county elected officials and department heads. He also worried about workforce strain.

“It’s kind of frustrating, because we are having trouble hiring employees now,” he said. “If we have people leave over this, who is going to help us find more employees? OSHA? No.”

Sherman questioned that assumption.

“We currently have vacancies in departments with no (vaccine) requirements, but the agencies that have had requirements aren’t seeing the mad rush of employees leaving,” she said.

Many private health care providers and other companies already have required staff vaccination or testing. A previous executive order mandated that long-term-care centers receiving Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements require staff vaccination — including the county-owned Sunnycrest Manor.

Since such requirements went into place, Sherman said, companies started offering software to help employers track vaccinations and tests. But she said the county should be able to handle that internally.

Neither Sherman nor the Dubuque County Health Department had data tracking how many county staff were vaccinated as of Wednesday.

Dubuque County is not the only local government agency paying attention to the federal requirement.

The City of Dubuque, as an employer of more than 100 people, is watching development of the OSHA rules closely, spokesman Randy Gehl wrote in an email.

“The City has not made any decisions yet on our course of action as we are awaiting Emergency Temporary Standards to be released by OSHA, which we anticipate will be in the next few weeks,” he wrote. “Once we have a plan finalized, we will notify all employees to provide enough time for employee questions and compliance. At this time, we continue to strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Dubuque Community Schools officials expect they will be subject to the rule as well, according to spokesman Mike Cyze.

“Based on initial information, we suspect the district will be included, but the state’s OSHA plan will determine that and there has been no confirmation released yet,” he wrote in an email. “In terms of planning, we are awaiting the specific draft guidance from OSHA, which has not yet been released, to determine the impact on the district and next steps.”

University of Wisconsin-Platteville also is awaiting news as to whether or not it will be impacted.

“The UW System is anticipating federal guidance later this week, and (the) system will then need to review it,” spokesman Paul Erickson wrote in an email.

City of Platteville and Grant County, Wis., officials did not respond to requests for comment.