Iowa “will take immediate legal action to challenge” new workplace standards on COVID-19 vaccinations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said. In a written statement after OSHA published the new standards, Reynolds called the effort to increase vaccination rates and protect workers in congregate settings from being exposed to the virus “dangerous and unprecedented.”
Reynolds’ push back against the federal vaccine requirement came the day after the Iowa Department of Public confirmed that more than 7,000 Iowans have died from the virus since COVID-19 was first confirmed in the state in March 2020.
President Joe Biden said during a televised address on Sept. 9 that he was ordering OSHA to develop emergency standards that require businesses with more than 100 workers to require workers either present proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or be tested weekly for the virus.
The standards issued Thursday include those requirements. OSHA also mandates that unvaccinated workers wear face masks at work to decrease the chances of COVID-19 spread.
Companies covered by the new standard will be required to provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects. Companies will not be required to pay for the weekly tests for unvaccinated workers.
The OSHA standards contain exemptions for workers at covered companies “who do not report to a workplace where other individuals are present or who telework from home” and “workers who perform their work exclusively outdoors.”
The standards go into effect on Jan. 4, 2022. Companies can be fined up to $13,000 per violation, and fines can increase to $136,000 per incident “for willful and egregious violations.”
The Biden administration had already issued requirements for federal employees and employees of federal contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But on Thursday, the deadline to meet that requirement was changed from the original date of Dec. 8 to Jan. 4.
Also on Thursday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services(CMS) issued a rule requiring that all workers at institutions that accept Medicare or Medicaid be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4. Unlike the OSHA standard for companies with more than 100 employees, the CMS rule does not allow employees to choose weekly tests instead of being vaccinated.
“Today’s action addresses the risk of unvaccinated health care staff to patient safety and provides stability and uniformity across the nation’s health care system to strengthen the health of people and the providers who care for them,” CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in a statement on Thursday.
In her statement Thursday, Gov. Reynolds said, “President Biden is taking dangerous and unprecedented steps to insert the federal government even further into our lives while dismissing the ability of Iowans and Americans to make health care decisions for themselves.”
“Biden’s plan pits Americans against Americans, while forcing them to choose between making a living or standing up for their personal beliefs. Biden’s actions will only worsen the existing workforce shortages and supply chain issues that hinder our economic recovery.”
“I believe the vaccine is the best defense against COVID-19, but I also firmly believe in Iowans’ right to make healthcare decisions based on what’s best for themselves and their families, and I remain committed to protecting those freedoms. President Biden should do the same.”
Last Friday, Reynolds signed into law a bill mandating that any employer requiring workers be vaccinated must automatically grant an exemption from vaccination to any worker who submits:
1. A statement that receiving the vaccine would be injurious to the health and well-being of the employee or an individual residing with the employee.
2. A statement that receiving the vaccine would conflict tenets and practices of a religion of which the is an adherent or member.
The automatic granting of an exemption only applies to COVID-19 vaccination, not any other vaccination that might be required in a workplace.
The bill, HF 902, also makes any worker “discharged from employment for refusing to receive a vaccination against COVID-19” eligible for unemployment benefits.
HF 902 was introduced by Republicans in the Iowa Legislature, during the one-day special session last week to consider new legislative and congressional district maps, and Democrats had no input in its drafting, but 12 Democrats in the Iowa House and 13 Democrats in the Iowa Senate joined Republicans in voting for it.
Iowa House Democrats who voted for HF 902 include Rep. Liz Bennett, who is running for the Iowa Senate, Rep. Christina Bohannan of Iowa City, who is running for Congress, and Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo, who is running for governor. Among the Democrats supporting the bill in the Senate were Sen. Liz Mathis of Cedar Rapids, who is running for Congress, and Sen. Zach Wahls of Coralville.
(Laura Belin has a full rundown on who voted for the bill at Bleeding Heartland.)
During an appearance on Iowa Press last week, Wahls, the minority leader in the state Senate, said he voted for the bill because “Democrats have been very consistent through the entire pandemic that unemployment benefits should be there for families who need them.”
“Our position has been really clear: families who need unemployment should be able to get those benefits,” he explained. “And so, I didn’t like the process around yesterday’s bill … but from a big-picture perspective around supporting those families who need it, we’ve always been there, we’re going to still be there.”
Other Democrats who spoke in support of the bill before the vote on it last week also cited its unemployment provision as a reason to vote for it.
Nothing in the federal vaccination requirement for businesses with over 100 workers, health centers that accept Medicare or Medicaid, or federal employees and federal contractors touch on eligibility for unemployment benefits, so that part of HF 902 won’t be affected by the Biden administration’s actions. The section regarding exemptions from vaccinations likely will be.
The OSHA, CMS rules and those for federal employees and contractors all contain “limited exceptions” for workers regarding health and religious conditions. As the text of the OSHA standard explains, those exceptions apply to workers “(1) for whom a vaccine is medically contraindicated, (2) for whom medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination, or (3) those legally entitled to a reasonable accommodation under federal civil rights laws because they have a disability or sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflict with the vaccination requirement.”
The self-certification of a medical condition allowed under HF 902 would not meet federal standards, and only religious exemptions that meet the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would qualify under the federal rules. Since no major religious domination opposes COVID-19 vaccinations that may limit how many people qualify.
HF 902 also does not exempt employees from weekly testing or wearing face masks, which OSHA provides as an alternative to vaccinations.
In her statement on Thursday, Reynolds said the state “will take immediate legal action to challenge the Biden Administration’s rule on vaccine mandates for employees of companies employing 100 or more.” The governor did not mention the CMS rule or the vaccination requirements for federal employees and contractors.
In an interview on a conservative talk radio show last month, Reynolds said she planned to sue the federal government as soon as it introduced vaccination requirements because Iowans “have said enough is enough. They are tired of the overreach, they are tired of the mandates.”
According to the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker, 97 of Iowa’s 99 counties are experiencing high levels of community transmission of the virus. The remaining two counties, Muscatine and Louisa, have substantial levels of community transition.
In Iowa, 52.9 percent of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to IDPH’s latest numbers.
In its weekly update on Wednesday, the department reported 7,643 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 660 cases over the 6,983 in its previous weekly update.
The number of Iowans hospitalized with COVID-19 fell below 500 for the first time since IDPH’s update on Sept. 8. IDPH also reported another 104 deaths in this week’s update, pushing Iowa’s official COVID-19 death toll to 7,069.
Gov. Reynolds did not mention that grim milestone during her news conference on Wednesday, although she must have been aware of it. The conference focused on her administration’s plans to use federal funds to expand child care in Iowa. But when reporters were given an opportunity to ask questions, Reynolds was asked if any progress had been made finding a replacement for Dr. Caitlin Pedati.
On Sept. 22, IDPH announced Pedati, the state epidemiologist and IDPH medical director, would be leaving both positions in “late October” in order “to pursue new career opportunities.”
October is over, Pedati is gone, the state is lacking a chief epidemiologist and IDPH doesn’t have a medical director.
“I know that the job has been posted, I don’t know how many have applied,” Reynolds said in response to the reporter’s question. “I would defer that question to Director Garcia. So, we, like everybody else, it’s a tight labor market, but I know the job has been posted. [sic] I think they’ve received some applicants, but Kelly would be the one that you would need to give you an update on that.”
Kelly Garcia is the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services. She has also served as the interim director of IDPH, since the department’s previous director left at the end of July 2020.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, the Iowa Department of Public Health has not had a full-time director in over 15 months.