A banner that reads "Laborers Local Union #663, Union Proud, Feel the Power" behind two tables set up for vaccination.
The Kansas City, Missouri Health Department hosted a vaccination clinic geared towards construction workers in the lobby of Local 663. The clinic happened on Sept. 30 at 7820 Prospect Ave. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Kansas City-area businesses overall aren’t rushing to mandate vaccines for workers following President Joe Biden’s announcement of new pandemic mitigation measures that seek to reduce incidences of COVID-19 infections in workplaces. 

Under the new requirements, health care workers at most hospitals will need to be vaccinated. At businesses with more than 100 employees, workers must either be vaccinated or provide a weekly negative test.

These requirements will be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration through an emergency temporary standard. As they await the final published mandate, workers at larger businesses are unsure what their employers will require them to do.

A statement to The Kansas City Beacon from Tiffany Charles, vice president of public relations at Commerce Bank, is representative of the stance many businesses are taking: “Like other businesses, we are awaiting guidance from OSHA and we will update our policies, as appropriate, at that time.” Commerce Bank employs about 2,400 workers in its Kansas City-area locations.

One big exception to the wait-and-see strategy is Cerner Corp., Kansas City’s largest private employer. The health care technology company announced on Friday that all of its 26,000 employees nationwide, including about 13,000 in the Kansas City region, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8 or undergo weekly testing. 

The first vaccine mandate of its kind in decades

The formal publication of the emergency temporary standard is expected within the next couple of weeks. Until then, many details remain unclear, such as what kind of tests are required and how businesses are to keep track. OSHA and the Missouri Department of Labor did not respond to multiple requests from The Beacon for comment.

Although resistance to Biden’s mandates among Republican politicians and some employers has been fierce, Kansas City employment attorney Stacy Bunck predicts the vaccine and testing mandate will likely hold up in court if challenged.

An emergency temporary standard, or ETS, is a set of guidelines offered by OSHA when the legislative process may move too slowly to protect workers. Before the current pandemic, there had only been nine since OSHA was formed 50 years ago, and none had been issued for about three decades. Over the past six months, however, OSHA has issued two: the current “vaccinate or test” mandate and one in June that outlined regulations for health care providers.

“The fact that we’ve had now two in what will soon be less than six months is indicative of how unknown the COVID situation is in the United States, and how unpredictable and new it is,” Bunck said. “OSHA felt the need to issue two ETSes within a six-month period after taking really close to a 30-year break.”

Five of the past nine sets of guidelines have been fully or partially struck down or stayed in court, Bunck said, and the vaccine and testing mandate could meet the same fate. But Bunck said any group challenging the mandate would need to prove that COVID-19 does not pose a “grave danger” to workers. With the pandemic’s death toll eclipsing 700,000 in the United States, she does not think this is likely.

The new ETS will become effective immediately after publication, and OSHA must create a permanent standard within six months of publication.

An ETS is usually challenged legally through a “petition for judicial review.” Republican U.S. senators also tried to thwart it this week by prohibiting federal funds from being used to enforce the mandate. An amendment introduced Sept. 30 failed to get enough votes.

Kansas City businesses waiting to decide if they will have a vaccine mandate

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey in August on COVID-19 policies among employers. Of 184 employers that responded, only 15% had vaccine mandates in place. Almost half of the companies that responded are working fully in person. 

The chamber’s survey was completed before Biden announced the new vaccine and testing mandate. Chamber officials declined to comment for this story. 

Burns & McDonnell, an architecture and engineering firm that employs over 3,000 people in the Kansas City area, said it has not made any final decisions at this time. It has offered vaccination clinics for employees at its Kansas City offices.

In a statement, a representative from Honeywell, a manufacturing company that contracts with the federal government, said the company is working to comply with Biden’s executive order. Because Honeywell is a federal contractor, its employees will be required to get vaccinated, without the option of weekly COVID-19 tests as an alternative. Honeywell employs about 5,000 workers in the Kansas City area.

‘We thought it was clearly the right thing to do’

Even though hospitals will likely not be required to order vaccinations for staff for another several weeks, University Health, formerly known as Truman Medical Centers, initiated a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its employees in July. At the time, roughly 70% of the health system’s staff had been vaccinated. As of Sept. 29, compliance was up to 99%. Only 39 employees out of about 5,000 chose to resign rather than be vaccinated, according to University Health President Charlie Shields.

Shields said that requiring the vaccine has kept the workforce safe, and fewer employees have missed work due to illness. He does not know of any employee who has gotten seriously sick with COVID-19 since the health system started requiring vaccination.

Three primary factors caused University Health to require vaccinations two months before Biden made the decision universal, Shields said. Those factors: to protect its workforce and keep the hospitals staffed; to reassure patients that they would not catch the virus from an employee; and to send a message to the community that vaccination is the best way to end the pandemic.

“We thought it was clearly the right thing to do,” Shields said. “We (lost) 39 employees who effectively resigned because they chose not to participate, but 39 represents less than 1%. So the focus is on the 99% of employees that chose to do what we think is the right thing for those involved in health care and get vaccinated. We think that’s an amazing number.”

For employers who want to initiate a vaccine mandate for workers, Shields said communication with employees is key — it’s important to not surprise them.

Beyond that, employers should have an idea of how many additional employees need vaccination, Shields said. If Kansas City businesses need help with the logistics, University Health and other hospitals can assist.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....