On-site MN state employees face vaccine-or-test choice

The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul
The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News file

Updated: 8:20 p.m.

Minnesota’s approximately 40,000 state employees will face a choice after Labor Day: They’ll either have to prove they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing to be back in the office.

Officials with Gov. Tim Walz’s administration informed union leaders of the new rule on Wednesday. It follows similar actions in other states led by Democratic governors, including California and Washington.

Walz told reporters on Tuesday that discussions with unions were taking place.

“Vaccination is the best way to keep employees and the people we serve safe and ensure the delta variant does not derail our economic recovery,” Walz said in a written statement announcing the policy. “The state is leading by example and working to get our public employees vaccinated to protect themselves, their coworkers and their communities. With this action, we’re joining businesses and colleges across the state who have taken this important step, and I urge other employers to do the same.”

Labor leaders representing nine unions were on a briefing call Wednesday about the policy. Some expressed concern about the mandate and said they would work with the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget to refine the requirement.

The state’s largest public employee union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 5, issued a carefully worded statement from Executive Director Julie Blehyl that neither voiced support nor opposition to the mandate.

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“We will continue to promote the safety and efficacy of vaccines to protect all workers and those we love,” she said. “In light of the resurgence of the COVID-19 virus, we will continue to work with all employers to ensure that workers’ voices, ideas, and concerns are truly heard in the decision-making process with regard to vaccine and testing mandates, their impacts, and questions/concerns regarding the implementation of the mandate.

Another major union was also tentative in its response.

“We are clear that it’s important that all Minnesotans work together to end the pandemic so we can go back safely to doing our jobs, going back into the classrooms and our communities and spending time with our families and friends,” said Megan Dayton, president of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. “But we have a number of questions that need to be answered before the policy goes into effect.”

Among them, she said, is who pays for testing, whether employees will be compensated during testing and where it occurs, given that it is a new condition of employment. Verification of vaccination status was also raised.

According to the written directive, “testing will occur during work hours and be considered work time.” That document also spells out what happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, but makes clear that won’t be grounds for punishment of any kind.

Employees who refuse to either be vaccinated or tested regularly are subject to discipline, including being sent home without pay. 

The rule applies only to those employees who report to offices or other state job sites. That roster is limited for now, but the list will grow as the state gradually phases out a broad teleworking plan used during the pandemic.

The state’s executive branch employs about 35,700 people. Currently, 57 percent of those employees are required to work in-person, said a spokesperson for Minnesota Management and Budget.

Workers who go into the office for less than 10 minutes at a time are not covered.

A formal return-to-the-office schedule could be released soon, but a return to usual for the bulk of employees appears to be months away.

Employees of the 37 institutions of the Minnesota State colleges and universities will also be subject to the Walz policy, according to the system’s leader. There are 15,000 faculty and staff.

“We continue to strongly encourage our students to be vaccinated as soon as possible, but we will continue to monitor the evolving pandemic and remain steadfast to ensure that our colleges and universities protect the health and safety of our students and move them towards their educational goals,” Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he won’t implement a vaccine or testing policy for Senate employees.

“Instead of mandates, we will continue our policy of allowing staff and members to work remotely, and those who want to can wear a mask and get vaccinated,” Gazelka said in a written statement. “I believe this approach protects safety and freedom together. Our priority continues to be finding this important balance.” 

Last week, the Walz administration updated its mask use policy to require face coverings for employees working around others or in public contact settings.