State government’s vax-or-test rule quietly expires

A nurse prepared a COVID-19 vaccine dose.
Unvaccinated Minnesota state government employees are no longer required to take weekly COVID-19 tests to keep reporting for duty.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Unvaccinated Minnesota state government employees are no longer required to take weekly COVID-19 tests to keep reporting for duty, a quiet shift that hasn’t fully settled disputes around workplace vaccination policies.

When Gov. Tim Walz announced the vaccine-or-test policy last August, he said the state was “leading by example and working to get our public employees vaccinated to protect themselves, their coworkers and their communities.”

It went into effect in September of 2021 and applied to employees who work in an office setting or in public-facing roles. In the early going, that meant thousands of employees took weekly tests. Refusal to comply with either option led to suspensions, other discipline or termination in rare instances.

Without publicity, Walz’s administration rescinded the policy in late May. A state official said this week that the move was made to adapt the executive branch’s COVID-19 approach to the evolving nature of the virus.

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“Whereas it was common to have broad, uniform precautionary measures earlier in the pandemic, the pandemic is at a point where public health COVID-19 risk assessments and precautions are now more dependent upon the specific circumstances of individuals and communities,” said Patrick Hogan, communications director for the state Department of Minnesota Management and Budget.

He said agencies can still adopt their own procedures.

And a small subset of state workers in health care settings are still bound by federal vaccination rules that took hold in January. Unvaccinated employees can be “excluded from covered facilities and may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including discharge.”

A companion state policy on vaccinations also remains a source of consternation. It gives only vaccinated employees who work in health care or congregate living settings access to an enhanced level of paid leave if they faced an extended quarantine and ran out of regular sick time. They qualify for up to 56 more hours of paid time off.

A forensic support specialist at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center sued the Minnesota Department of Human Services in federal court last week over that policy. 

Benjamin Zarn, who said he was denied a religious exemption but complied with the testing rule when it was in effect, argues he’s being discriminated against. He said he had COVID-19 previously and believes his natural immunity puts him on par with his vaccinated peers.

Greg Erickson, an attorney for Zarn, said the mutation of COVID-19 to new variants infecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated people undercuts the rationale for treating employees differently. 

“Whatever utility the original vaccine had in keeping people from getting infected is gone,” Erickson said in an interview. “What they're kind of in the business now of doing is kind of sticking it to the people that kind of held out and didn't get vaccinated.”

The Department of Human Services declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. But an agency spokesperson said in a written response to questions that it has a process in place for staff to request religious accommodations.

DHS said that since Jan. 4, 132 requests for accommodation have been granted and that a total of 27 employees have been on no-pay status at one time or another.

Statistics about use of the enhanced COVID-19 leave weren’t immediately available.

The state hasn’t compiled centralized data on compliance with the now-expired policy on vaccination and testing since November. Information available last fall showed that 75 percent of workers subject to the rule had proven they were vaccinated and the rest had to take tests on weeks they were planning to be in the office.

MMB figures as of Nov. 30 – when the agency stopped tracking discipline related to the policy – indicate eight state agency employees had faced written reprimand or suspensions and one was fired.

Records supplied to MPR News in May in response to a formal data request show the fired employee at the Human Services department faced escalating sanctions. 

According to the materials, the information desk customer service employee told managers “her human rights are being violated, her job should not dictate what she does with her body and is fully aware of the position that she is taking and would not be changing her mind.”

In September, the unionized employee who had worked for the agency for more than three years was issued a written reprimand. 

That turned into a five-day suspension by early October. 

Less than two weeks later, she was terminated.

Correction: (July 20, 2022): A previous version of this story contained an incorrect job title for Benjamin Zarn. The story has been updated.