Louisiana businesses are processing the sweeping new COVID-19 vaccine mandates issued by President Joe Biden, which order employers with more than 100 workers to require immunizations or weekly testing.
“At this time, there is more we don’t know, than what we do know,” said Erin Kilgore, an attorney who specializes in labor law for the Baton Rouge-based firm Kean Miller. “Although legal challenges to the rule seem certain, the devil will be in the details.”
The president’s order didn’t come as a surprise, said Connie Fabre, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, a trade organization made up of petrochemical plants.
“Prior to this coming down, everyone was asking when it was going to happen,” she said.
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Fabre said while none of the plants in Baton Rouge have mandated COVID vaccinations, companies were eyeing each other to see who would make the first move. “Once one does it, everybody will be doing it,” she said.
Some of the state’s largest employers already have vaccine mandates. Ochsner Health, which employs about 32,000 people across Louisiana, requires all doctors, providers and employees get the COVID vaccine by Oct. 29.
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Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady health system, which includes employees at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge and Our Lady of Lourdes in Lafayette is requiring all managers, doctors, residents and advanced practice providers get vaccinated by Halloween or face unpaid suspension. The rest of the FMOL employees have to get vaccinated by Nov. 30 or face suspension without pay.
Walmart is requiring all headquarters employees and managers who travel to get the vaccine by Oct. 4. Chevron and Valero require some employees to get vaccinations, such as those working offshore or in refineries.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state’s largest business organization, said while improving vaccination rates is critical to the economy and community health, Biden’s measure goes too far.
“This policy has the potential to offshore American companies who fear losing their employees, subjecting themselves to predatory litigation and are at risk of paying exorbitant OSHA fines enforced from unnamed federal agencies in a challenging, pandemic-influenced economy,” LABI President Stephen Waguespack said.
Biden’s vaccination mandate will affect about a quarter of LABI’s 2,000 members, he added.
Workers at health facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds will have to be fully vaccinated, which will have wide-ranging effects on hospitals and nursing homes. Mark Berger, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association said the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will issue interim rules in October.
“Louisiana’s nursing facilities will adjust accordingly when new guidance is issued,” he said in a statement.
At CGI, which employs 600 at its U.S. Delivery Center in Lafayette and hopes to open its downtown location later this year, officials are also waiting to see the specific guidelines that come out next month before moving forward, Vice President Will LaBar said.
He could not estimate how many employees — many of whom are working remotely due both to the pandemic and the transition to the new building — are vaccinated. The company did not offer an incentive to get vaccinated.
MacLaff, which runs 45 McDonald’s locations from Acadiana to the River Parishes, held three vaccinations drives at its offices in Baton Rouge and Lafayette to encourage employees to get the shot, CEO E.J. Krampe said.
A “significant amount” of the company’s 1,900 employees is vaccinated, he said, but noted it’s “not even close” to all workers being vaccinated.
“We certainly encourage it,” Krampe said. “But I’m not one to tell everyone what they need to do — not regarding their health at least.”
For Excel USA, a construction business in Baton Rouge, the goal is to comply without compromising the relationship with its workforce.
“We have not make a final decision but our goal is to comply while at the same time providing as much personal freedom providing for testing options as well,” chief legal officer Cherie Pinac said. “It’s a personal decision for our employees and their medical provider, we’re going to accommodate our employees.”
Likewise, for construction and petrochemical giant Turner Industries, the company is still gathering information before making a decision.
“This is something that the whole business world will deal with and we will too. But it won’t be in a vacuum,” Turner Industries President Stephen Toups said.
At Community Coffee, the company aims to comply with the federal requirement.
“We are following mandates from public health officials to maintain safe and healthy work environments during this pandemic,” company spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
For some businesses, a vaccine mandate is more practical than consistent testing to ensure there are enough workers to meet customer demand. Employment in Louisiana, like most states, is at-will. That means employers can fire workers for any reason that’s not protected such as having a disability or because of a person’s race, nationality, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.
“I think one thing employers need to consider is that you might have a higher incidence of COVID and sickness which means more expense for the business,” New Orleans-based attorney Casey Denson said.
Beyond that, workers who are not interested in getting the vaccine can’t just opt out by citing a sincere religious belief or documented disability. In theory, once the rule is implemented through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers could be investigated for failing to comply.
“You don’t just get to say I can’t get the vaccine,” Denson explained. “You have to work with a medical provider and then your employer can use that medical documentation.”
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