Montana employers must deal with new COVID vaccination rules

Posted at 10:06 PM, Nov 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-07 01:09:25-05

On Thursday, the Biden Administration laid out new Covid vaccine rules that could impact thousands of Montana employers and their employees.

The first from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services: all federal employees, federal contractors, and healthcare workers at facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid have until Jan. 4 to be fully vaccinated. Federal workers and contractors who don’t get vaccinated could lose their jobs.

And the second, through the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), states people who work at businesses with more than 100 employees must also meet that deadline or test weekly and wear a mask at work.

Businesses could face thousands of dollars in fines, per employee, per violation.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is trying to help businesses understand and comply with the federal COVID vaccine mandate. On Friday, Chamber representatives hosted an online discussion for businesses.

Montana employers must deal with new COVID vaccination rules

They discussed how businesses can be in compliance with the mandate and what to do if various scenarios arise. They also said that while the January 4, 2022 deadline to get vaccinated is getting most of the attention, there is another deadline businesses need to keep in mind.

"There are several other requirements that kick in before January 4. These will kick in on December 5, or let me say you need to have them in place by December 5,” said Marc Freedman, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Employment Policy Vice President. "These include the requirements that you must assess your workplace to determine who is vaccinated and who is not and that any unvaccinated employees must wear masks indoors.”

The OSHA mandate - which is called an Emergency Temporary Standard - states:

This ETS preempts States, and political subdivisions of States, from adopting and enforcing workplace requirements relating to the occupational safety and health issues of vaccination, wearing face coverings, and testing for COVID-19, except under the authority of a Federally-approved State Plan. In particular, OSHA intends for the ETS to preempt and invalidate any State or local requirements that ban or limit an employer’s authority to require vaccination, face covering, or testing. State and local requirements that prohibit employers from implementing employee vaccination mandates, or from requiring face coverings in workplaces, serve as a barrier to OSHA’s implementation of this ETS, and to the protection of America’s workforce from COVID-19.

To learn more about the mandate and how it could impact your business, click here to read the complete document on the OSHA website.

At RiverStone Health in Billings, County Health Officer John Felton said employers, especially in Montana, are in a hard spot because state law conflicts with the federal rule.

Montana House Bill 702 states a vaccine mandate is illegal discrimination.

“In our state, we've got additional confusion because the question is going to be, does the state law trump the federal rule, or does the federal rule trump the state law?” said Felton. “And in the timeline that we have, it’s going to be extremely difficult. We're going to rely on courts to help us figure this out.”

Felton says the health department is torn, like many other employers. He and his team have 30 days to come up with procedures to implement the new federal rules, but RiverStone follows state law.

“The choice that's been put in front of organizations today, as these rules roll out, is do we choose to violate the state law and actively discriminate,” said Felton, “or do we choose to violate the federal rules, which in the case of RiverStone health as an example, would be about… close to half of our annual revenue if we lose federal funding. So which of those choices do you take?”

The 30-day deadline begins Friday, so Felton says his team will begin to write up compliance procedures immediately. “It turns out that the timelines are so short, that we cannot afford to wait and start when the court can make a decision.”

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen on Friday joined several other state attorneys general in a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s rule that larger companies must require workers to be vaccinated against COVID. Click here for details.