County waits on Supreme Court for vaccine policy

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By Reed Anfinson
Before implementing a vaccine, mask and testing policy, for its 140 employees, Swift County will wait to see what action the U.S. Supreme Court takes on the federal rule.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) back in November requiring employers with 100 or more employees to implement its rule. However, it has been working its way through the courts due challenges by business organizations and Republican attorneys general across the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Friday on the authority of OSHA to implement what is seen as a vaccine mandate by employers and some employees.
Conservative justices, who are a majority on the Supreme Court, seemed inclined to hold that the OSHA rule was overly broad and that health issues for employers were better handled at the state level.
While it could take weeks for a final decision, OSHA has already indicated it would not impose fines on businesses that don’t comply before late February, the Associated Press reported. By then, it is likely the Supreme Court will have handed down its decision
The county was under a deadline of Jan. 1o to have a policy in place for vaccination, testing, and for face coverings. It would then have from Jan. 10 to Feb. 9 to collect the vaccination status of all its employees. It would also set in place a process for determining whether or not an employee qualified for a medical or religious exemption.
“I understand this is a really tough decision,” Administrator Kelsey Baker said. “I have heard feedback from the county board, staff and employees. We have had discussions with the unions.”
Baker told the board it was her recommendation they adopt the policy. “In 2011, we were fined by OSHA in the highway department for $14,000,” she said. “It was after we had said we would do so many corrective actions and they never came through. They did a random site visit, and we weren’t doing any of those.”
If the county doesn’t comply with the OSHA rules and they are upheld by the Supreme Court, it could face $14,000 in fines for each instance in which it is not in compliance, the board has been told.
If the county passes the policy, what is the next step for the administration? Commissioner Ed Pederson, District 2-north Benson and Benson Township, asked.
If the policy is approved, the county administration would start requesting the vaccination status of its employees, Baker said. Employees will also be sent an email that gives them all their options if they are not vaccinated.
“We want to give staff as many options as they possibly can have,” she said. “If they can have the option to work remotely so they don’t have to be tested weekly, that can be an option. What we are trying to do is the best thing for county employees.”
Pederson said his concern was employees getting a message that says, “If you are not vaccinated, you’re done.”
“If anyone has read this policy, they would know they are not done,” Commissioner Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, said. “If it offers flexibility to them.”
Commissioner Eric Rudningen, District 5-Kerkhoven, said he had received a few calls from constituents on the proposed policy. “The majority have encouraged me to wait until we hear what the Supreme Court says,” he said.
He went on to say that in looking at the responsibility of county commissioners, there was “kind of a slippery slope on the misuse of public funds.”  Minnesota law clearly states that “public funds can’t be used in support of one side of an issue or another.”
If the commissioners knowingly violate a federal regulation and the county is fined, is paying that fine with taxpayer dollars supporting one side over another? he asked. He said he didn’t know the answer to that question.
There are times when public officials have to enact regulations that usurp individual rights for the “greater good to protect people’s right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Rudningen said. An easy example is a stop sign. “We do it not because it is convenient for us but that is part of that orderly society,” he said.
Rudningen said that he knows people will not always agree with him, “but I will look you in the eye and say, ‘This is my decision.’” There can be a discussion about how he arrived at the decision, but he will stand by it.
Swift County’s board is acting in reaction to the requirements of a federal mandate, he said.
Hendrickx moved the county board approve the county’s vaccination, testing, and face covering policy saying that if there wasn’t a second, the motion would die. Chair Fox then asked for a second and was met with silence. After a long pause, he asked one more time and again was met with silence. “Then I am going to have to second it,” he said.
“For me, the state or federal government should be doing it,” Fox said of the OSHA rule. “They shouldn’t be kicking it down to the county.”
Commissioner Pete Peterson, District 3-south Benson and Torning Township, said he was not opposed to the policy but he was opposed to the timing of its presentation. “Why would we be fined if it is going to court, and it hasn’t been ruled on yet? I don’t see where OSHA would be coming down on anyone very hard until the final ruling is done.”
He also pointed out that Big Stone County has less than 100 employees and won’t be affected by the mandate. “Does that mean their employees are less important than ours?” he asked.
Both Catie Lee at Swift County Human Services and Sheriff John Holtz had said they could lose employees over the mandate, Peterson said. “They can just go across the border and get a job,” he said. “We have a hard enough time getting employees. Training employees cost money.”

Chief Deputy Mike Hoffman’s objections
Though Holtz asked the county board to listen to a statement from Chief Deputy Mike Hoffman on the proposed policy, he later told the Monitor-News that Hoffman was speaking for himself not the office.
In addressing the county board, Hoffman said he wasn’t against vaccines. “I believe people should do their own research, do a risk assessment, and rationalize a plan that will be best for themselves and their family,” he told commissioners.
He went on to blame both the Trump and the Biden Administrations for the politization of the vaccines “to the point of complete distrust. I absolutely do not support a vaccine mandate,” he said.
Though he was in military service and has served as a law enforcement officer, he said, “Nobody should put their full faith in the government.” While acknowledging the right of elected public bodies to create laws he said he was “hesitant to relinquish rights and additional powers to the government particularly to those who have not been elected. The policies being pushed out by OSHA, a group of unelected bureaucrats, should not be adopted by Swift County at this time.”
Terminating an employee because he or she won’t get vaccinated puts their livelihood at risk, endangering their health and safety, Hoffman said.
Hoffman said a vaccine mandate would hamstring the sheriff’s office and could have a ripple effect into the community. “Terminating great employees in a time when it is impossible to find people to work is not only foolish but a serious lapse in judgment,” he told commissioners.
“I have no problem with vaccinations if someone has it or doesn’t have it,” Jesse Berge told the commissioners during the citizens comments portion of the meeting.
“But I do have a problem if someone is being told they have to,” he said. “If for some reason they don’t want to take it, that is up to them. You guys are the five that are going to be voting on this.”
He said he had a problem with people who got vaccinated when they didn’t want to be and didn’t stand up for their principles. “I am not an anti-vaxer. It is mandating this that would be ridiculous. Everybody in this building would have to be wearing a mask who isn’t vaccinated. It is segregating them.”

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