Area business officials and lawmakers acknowledge the confusion created by conflicting rules in new Iowa law and a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large employers.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration released rules on Thursday for an executive order from President Joe Biden that employers of more than 100 staff require vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative test for the coronavirus each week.
That came one week after the Iowa Legislature passed a bill that strengthened exemptions for workers who do not want a COVID-19 vaccine and ensured their eligibility for unemployment benefits if they lost their job because of it.
The Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce chose not to take a side on the bill but only because chamber officials thought it did little to actually tie businesses’ hands.
“We believe that employers should have the ability to make decisions that affect their employees and their bottom line,” Chamber President and CEO Molly Grover told the Telegraph Herald. “Since the bill last week didn’t specifically ban employers from doing anything, we issued no opinion.”
Grover said the bill likely will have one effect on the local business economy.
“It certainly creates more confusion,” she said. “Confusion and uncertainty is typically the antithesis of growth and investment.”
Administrators at Dupaco Community Credit Union said they still are trying to determine what the new state and federal rules will mean for them.
“We’re paying attention to it, still trying to digest it,” said David Klavitter, Dupaco’s chief marketing officer. “We’re looking at the guidance, trying to see what it means, thinking about what we need to do.”
He said Dupaco has not asked employees if they are vaccinated, though they observe an indoor mask mandate.
Iowa Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, told the Telegraph Herald that she has had to direct multiple area employers’ questions to the Iowa Department of Public Health since the vote last week.
“Employers in Iowa want to keep their employees safe, and they want to keep their customers safe,” she said. “Now, they have to walk on eggshells to make sure what they choose to do is legal.”
The OSHA rules released this week would require vaccination or weekly negative tests from employees as of Jan. 4 — other than those in health care, who would not have the testing option. It would require that masks be worn by unvaccinated employees, among other measures.
The Iowa bill quickly delayed previous plans for a local hospital, which had been prepared to implement vaccine mandates for its employees.
Instead of facing termination on Monday, Nov. 1, UnityPoint Health employees unwilling to receive a vaccine — including those at Finley Hospital in Dubuque — were put on administrative leave as of Tuesday while the company planned its next move.
“This bill does not change the original intent of our COVID-19 vaccination policy,” said Marketing Communications Specialist Riley Cole in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of our team members (98.5%) supported the science and willingly got vaccinated against COVID-19 or received an exemption. ... We regret losing any employee for not complying with our vaccination policy; however, having a vaccine-compliant workforce aligns with our values of protecting the health and safety of our patients, team members and communities.”
Cole also stressed that not all the 1.5% of staff who were unvaccinated were unwilling. That total also included those on leave already, those in the process of being vaccinated and those who already received exemptions.
MercyOne already initiated its vaccine deadline in Dubuque as of Sept. 21. Regional Communications Lead Jennifer Faley said the hospital would use Iowa’s new law in future hires.
The Telegraph Herald reached out to several other major employers in the area for this story, none of whom responded.
The recent Iowa law was passed by the Republican-led Legislature along party lines.
At the time of its passage, a federal order for health care workers at institutions that accepted Medicaid and Medicare to be vaccinated was set to go into effect four days later. That deadline led to rallies against the rule from oppositional health care workers and allies at the state capitol in Des Moines.
“It will definitely help people in jeopardy of losing their employment, either due to not getting an exemption or not getting the vaccine,” said Iowa Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, of the new state law.
Iowa Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, also lauded the bill’s passage.
“The people I represent are just feeling so crushed by the federal government,” he said. “They asked us to do something.”
Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also announced that the state had filed a lawsuit against the federal executive order, one of many that will tie it up in court.