Most state workers get a COVID shot; tensions rise around those who haven't

An empty COVID-19 vaccine vial.
An empty vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sits among syringes ready to be injected into the arms of eligible residents Feb. 25 at the Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

Updated: 1:10 p.m.

Nearly 27,000 employees in Minnesota state government jobs are a month into having to prove they’re vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, with a large majority attesting to having received their shots. 

Despite that, the mandate has caused consternation and complaints. While there have been relatively few cases of discipline so far, employees say their agencies are beginning to ramp up enforcement among workers who have objected to either option.

The situation was the subject of a Senate Human Services Reform and Policy Committee hearing Wednesday in which administration officials promised to refine the requirement a needed and look into complaints lodged by affected workers.

Not every employee in the executive branch is covered by the rule. It applies only to employees who routinely go into the office or to a job site or have a role that puts them in frequent contact with the public. That’s roughly 27,000 of 36,000 state employees for the time being.

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Of those, about three-quarters — more than 20,000 workers — have signed a form and returned it to their agency certifying they’ve been vaccinated.

That left just shy of 7,000 employees who either haven’t been vaccinated or don’t want to tell their boss their status. Those are the workers who have to submit to the COVID-19 test every week that they’re due to be in the office.

In carrying out the policy, officials in Gov. Tim Walz’s administration say they’re hoping to prod people to get immunized against COVID-19 and foster a safer environment for employees who are back in office settings or interacting with the public. A full-scale office return isn’t anticipated until January.

Last week, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter defended the vaccinate-or-test policy that was outlined in August and took effect in early September.

“We’re trying to avoid that higher cost of more people get sick in the workplace by having a policy to make sure we detect, we prevent, we avoid those costs and the spread of illness in state workplaces,” Schowalter said.

Government entities around Minnesota and elsewhere have adopted similar policies. So have corporations nationwide, some of which have gone even further to require vaccination. The actions have led to protests and lawsuits, but by and large have remained intact.

Republicans, including Sen. Jim Abeler of Anoka, are raising questions about whether the state plan was ready for implementation, is leading to any service disruptions or is creating undue workplace tension.

“The program was put out hastily, implemented hastily and now the employees are not being treated respectfully in the middle of a big rollout of this sort of thing,” said Abeler, who led the hearing and urged more leniency.

“People are required to test in front of their peers. They are called out in front of their peers,” he added. “They’ve been called out in front of their peers for signing the form. The privacy loss for some of these individuals has just been remarkable.”

Some agencies provide testing in their buildings. There’s also a St. Paul testing facility set up specifically for this purpose that can handle about 1,400 tests per week.

For workers in remote areas or without easy access to a test, there are at-home kits being provided as long as the test is monitored over a video chat.

Most employees take the tests while on the clock and can get reimbursed for mileage to and from a test site.

The state expects to receive federal reimbursement for the program and has already diverted $1.5 million in federal money toward the central test clinic.

Turnaround time has been two to three days for results, officials say.

So far, officials involved said they haven’t detected clusters of coronavirus cases. Last week, there were 38 recorded positive results.

Employees who decline to be vaccinated or tested can be sent home, put on unpaid leave or otherwise disciplined up to termination. The state believes there just more than 500 employees that have done that, Schowalter told Abeler in a letter Tuesday.

Each agency handles its situation separately. But the management and budget agency has been keeping track of the big picture.

Kristin Batson, a deputy commissioner at MMB, said the goal in this early phase is to answer employee questions and encourage compliance. She said it’s new ground for everybody involved.

“I knew it was going to be unprecedented. And I knew it was going to be operationally challenging. And it has been all of that,” Batson said. 

As of late last week, MMB said it had logged fewer than five cases that resulted in written reprimands. State employee policy doesn’t consider no-pay status to be discipline itself because it applies to employees that management argues are showing up not ready to work.

But several employees told MPR News that their agencies are warning that discipline could be coming.

Department of Human Services behavioral treatment specialist Mandi Helmin decided to remain unvaccinated until she’s comfortable there’s long-term data on it.

“This is a very new vaccine. And I’m glad so many feel safe with it, that’s good. I’m glad they have a right to choose it then,” she said. “I’m reserving my right to make my own health choices and choose to wait.”

Helmin spent nine days on unpaid leave after she objected to how the test program was laid out and declined to sign the test consent form. She was concerned about medical privacy in on-site testing.

“So every Wednesday when I get to walk into the office and have to spit in a cup in front of my supervisor, everybody knows that the ones going in on this day are the ones who aren't vaccinated,” Helmin said. “That's private information, and it causes hostile work environments when there are such strong feelings over this.”

Helmin said she was allowed to return after supplying a negative result of a test she lined up on her own time and expense, which is consistent with the state policy. She said she has to do that every week even though her agency has shifted strategies in a way that could satisfy her initial privacy concerns. 

A Transportation Department employee signed the test consent form Tuesday after being summoned to a meeting where the worker was told the alternative was being put on leave without pay. The worker spoke to MPR News anonymously out of fear of reprisal.

The major public employee unions have said little publicly about how the process is playing out.

The largest state employee union — the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees — didn’t respond to questions about whether their members have sought union help. But AFSCME Council 5 executive director Julie Bleyhl told lawmakers in a letter Tuesday that they want as much latitude for employees as possible.

“An absolutely critical element of this policy is the option for workers to undergo periodic testing as an alternative to receiving the vaccine,” Bleyhl wrote. “It is our position that any employer implementing a vaccine policy or a vaccine mandate, should incorporate a testing option as an alternative to employment termination if the employee chooses, for whatever reason, to not receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”

The next largest — the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees — said it doesn’t have data on who in the union has provided the vaccination form or are doing the tests. It said a handful of members have contacted union headquarters about the issue. 

The Minnesota State college system mirrored the executive branch policy.

Jeanne Wilson, an executive assistant at Rochester Community and Technical College and a public employee for 29 years, said she was put on unpaid leave last month over her refusal to comply with the requirement.

She said she’s not comfortable with the vaccine and objects to being ordered to test regularly.

“It’s discriminating against us as unvaccinated people, and I’m not OK with that either,” Wilson said. 

Wilson was first issued a warning email and has to discuss her stance weekly with her supervisor. She expects to be fired — 18 months before she would reach a higher pension status. But she said she won’t change her mind.

“I stand to lose a whole lot of money over the rest of my life,” Wilson said.