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Montana Business Leaders Wrestle With Federal Vaccine Mandate As COVID-19 Cases Climb

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Montana’s large business leaders are grappling with President Joe Biden’s nationwide vaccine mandate. There are questions about logistics and whether some workers may walk off the job in protest.

For more than six months, public health officials have been urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. After initial enthusiasm, vaccine uptake has plateaued.

Montana State University Political Science Professor Eric Raile says this is due to the method of raising awareness.

“Strongly recommending, telling people they should do things, is not effective,” he says.

Raile says Biden’s new vaccine rule is in response to that lag.

“From a public policy perspective, they’re reaching into the tool bag and looking around to see what they might be able to use,” he says.

Under Biden’s mandate, businesses with 100 employees or more will be required to ensure their staff are vaccinated or tested regularly. In Montana, that includes employees at big box stores, groceries, chain gas stations and major health care organizations.

The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with keeping workers safe, will add Biden’s vaccine mandate to its rulebook.

Todd O’Hair, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, says he’s concerned about what the rule will entail.

“We’re really concerned about the inordinate amount of pressure and administrative sort of effort that’s going to be required of those employers,” he says.

There are logistical questions, like what will be required of businesses to force compliance and what resources they will need to carry out either testing or vaccinations. Businesses that violate the rule could face fines up to $14,000.

O’Hair says the new rule could push some to leave the workforce.

“Is this going to put some folks who are at a certain point in their career, that they’ll just say, you know what, rather than comply with a government mandate, we’re just going to exit stage left,” he says.

Montana has an aging workforce, and as employers struggle to bring on new staff, O’Hair worries the mandate will exacerbate the labor shortage.

O’Hair says vaccines do play a role in keeping businesses open, but he says Montana is primarily a small-business state and he’s not sure how impactful Biden’s rule will be.

“There’s a big swath of the labor market that’s going to be left untouched by this mandate,” he says.

According to the Small Business Administration, Montana small businesses with fewer than 100 employees account for 65% of the private sector workforce.

Billings Clinic falls under Biden’s rule as one of Montana’s largest employers. Jim Duncan, chief communications officer for Billings Clinic, says the hospital is “beyond capacity” with patients, and staff are stretched thin.

“We take care of a large geographic region, and what we’re doing is we’re pushing the limits of how we’re able to meet the needs of our community,” he says. 

Duncan declined to say whether the hospital system is supportive of the new Biden rule since the full mandate has yet to be released. But he says administrators are supportive of finding ways to encourage vaccine uptake, especially given the prevalence of the delta variant.

“This is a different situation than it was a year ago when we were having our surge — so sicker patients, younger patients and certainly 90-95% of them unvaccinated,” he says.

According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, about 50% of all eligible residents in the state are fully vaccinated. As of Sept. 3, nearly 90% of people hospitalized statewide due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has promised to fight Biden’s mandate for larger employers, saying it violates personal freedoms. Attorney General Austin Knudsen has promised a lawsuit challenging it, as have other Republican-led states.

Raile, the political science professor, says some, like the Libertarian Party, are suggesting mass non-compliance of the rule among employers to push back.

“Given the difficulties of enforcement, that probably would work. But it’s also suggesting that people not follow the rules, which has some negative implications for trying to make and enforce public policy down the line,” he says.

Raile says the mandate could take awhile to have any kind of impact and that expecting a quick result is unreasonable. It’s unclear when Biden’s rule will go into effect.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.