With Vaccine Mandate Looming, Business Owners Face Wary Workers

Small-business owners are confronting challenges preparing for the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, with some saying efforts to comply are exacerbating hiring problems and stoking tensions with and among workers.

Under new federal rules, employers with 100 or more workers must ensure employees get fully vaccinated or else test negative for Covid-19 at least weekly and wear a mask at work. A federal appeals court temporarily blocked implementation of the rules in response to legal challenges, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration agreed not to begin enforcement pending a court decision. Many business owners are nonetheless preparing for the mandate, slated to take full effect on Jan. 4.

Pete Yohe, president of Bloomsburg, Pa., manufacturer Dyco Inc., said he applauds the spirit of the new rules because they encourage vaccinations. “But I hate the 100-plus mandate, which forces some of our employees to quit and go to smaller companies,” he said.

At Dyco, which makes and installs equipment used to produce plastic bottles and containers, more than 40 of roughly 140 employees haven’t been vaccinated, said Mr. Yohe. He expects at least two to quit rather than comply with federal requirements and says it will be harder to fill the company’s 14 open positions.

Dyco, which makes equipment used to produce plastic containers, is concerned about the potential staffing effects of a federal vaccine mandate.

The vaccine mandate drew mixed reactions from executives after it was announced in early November, with some saying they welcomed the federal rules because they took the burden off companies to impose their own. Others said the mandate thrusts employers into a contentious issue in which any stance risks inflaming staffing challenges.

Nearly 71% of adults nationwide are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With Covid-19 cases climbing again in parts of the U.S., some vaccinated workers’ concerns about re-entering workplaces alongside unvaccinated colleagues could be contributing to weak labor-force participation, some economists say.

Jason Hitch, chairman of Hitch Enterprises Inc., said he hopes the courts strike down the mandate but is making preparations in case that doesn’t happen. Mr. Hitch said he has encouraged workers to get the vaccine but “doesn’t want to be the police officer of the government’s mandate.”

The Guymon, Okla., company operates two feed yards, a mill, and a ranch. It has been planning to add a handful of workers by January, which would push headcount above the 100-employee threshold. The company is now considering whether to stay beneath it and instead ask some workers to put in overtime.

Hitch first asked its employees about their vaccination status in September, and executives said the response was so negative that they were reluctant to broach it again. With federal deadlines nearing, the company asked employees last week to provide their vaccination status to their supervisors. Two days later, after pushback from some workers, it sent out another letter telling employees that they must be prepared to supply the information but that Hitch wasn’t collecting it yet.

Lenny Wyda, a parts room manager at Dyco, got vaccinated this fall because he was tired of wearing a mask. His wife, receiving clerk Heidi Wyda, said she won’t get the vaccine but would wear a mask and get tested.

Mr. Hitch estimates about 60% of his workers are vaccinated, with a “vocal minority” strongly opposed to vaccinations, masking, and testing, all of which are effective at limiting the spread of Covid-19. “They understand it’s the government, but we are the implementers,” he said. “It directs the vitriol towards us.”

If Hitch has to comply, it might not give workers the option of masking and testing unless a low-cost option emerges. That is because Oklahoma requires employers to pay for a physical or medical examination needed for the job. “We have sat down and crunched the numbers,” Mr. Hitch said. “We can’t afford it.”

‘They understand it’s the government, but we are the implementers. It directs the vitriol towards us.’

— Jason Hitch, chairman of Guymon, Okla.-based Hitch Enterprises

In issuing the new standard, OSHA said it was confident that employers with at least 100 employees could implement the requirements quickly. But the agency said it needed more time to assess smaller employers’ ability to do so as well and was seeking additional comment.

A Labor Department spokesperson said the Occupational Safety and Health Act “provides for an emergency procedure to address a grave danger to employees.” Some businesses that have required vaccinations have seen an increase in hiring and applicants, the spokesperson added.

Some companies that fall beneath the 100-person threshold are already adding new Covid-19 policies in response to their larger customers’ vaccination and testing requirements.

Dyco staffers at its Bloomsburg, Pa., site. The company, whose management supports vaccinations, has been trying to fill more than a dozen open positions.

Mask requirements for the unvaccinated are likely to intensify divisions among employees over such protocols, said Steven Davis, area manager for Huntsville, Ala.-based Inline Electric Supply Co. “We are not acting as a team,” Mr. Davis said. “It is frustrating to me.”

Inline has worked with local doctors to create videos to educate workers about Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Mr. Davis estimates 40% of the company’s 255 employees have been vaccinated. “We have absolutely tried to educate people. It’s just right now, we have hit a wall,” he said. “People have dug in.”

‘We have absolutely tried to educate people. It’s just right now, we have hit a wall. People have dug in.’

— Steven Davis, area manager for Inline Electric Supply Co. in Huntsville, Ala.

Some employers say changing minds has been difficult. At Dyco, the Pennsylvania manufacturer, Christian Cook, a 48-year-old saw operator, was hospitalized for five days with Covid-19. He missed more than a month of work, still tires easily, and requires supplemental oxygen.

Mr. Cook said he is “on the fence” about getting vaccinated and opposes a mandate. “I don’t need to have somebody tell me what I am going to do and not do,” he said.

Allen Hurlburt, co-owner of H&M Gopher Control in Tulelake, Calif., which has seven employees, implemented a vaccine mandate in October after one employee fell ill with Covid-19 and another, whose parents caught it, became sick and refused to be tested. One unvaccinated employee got vaccinated and returned to work; five others quit, said Mr. Hurlburt, who has since filled the openings.

Christian Cook, a 48-year-old Dyco saw operator, was hospitalized and missed more than a month of work because of Covid-19 but is undecided on getting vaccinated.

“Ignoring the problem and [deciding to] continue operations was not an option,” said Mr. Hurlburt, 81, who owns the manufacturer of rodent-control equipment with his 70-year-old wife, Virginia Massey.

“We do not have the skilled personnel we had, but all are vaccinated,” he added. “We are filling orders. We are getting the job done.”

Employees were slow to respond when Giddings Hawkins Maintenance Service, a Milwaukee-based provider of industrial services, instituted its vaccine mandate this fall after some customers said they would require proof of vaccination from anyone entering their premises.

‘We do not have the skilled personnel we had, but all are vaccinated…We are getting the job done.’

— Allen Hurlburt, co-owner of H&M Gopher Control in Tulelake, Calif.

“For me as a business owner, it was vaccinated the workforce or face chapter 11 [bankruptcy],” said owner Reid Tileston.

Three of 14 employees had received at least one vaccine dose by Oct. 15, the company’s initial deadline. Days later, Mr. Tileston told workers that anyone who didn’t get their first dose wouldn’t be scheduled to work past Oct. 29.

He booked appointments for all unvaccinated employees at a local health clinic, on company time. That morning, he arrived at the office at 5 a.m., before the first shift went out, to prod workers to get vaccinated and answer any last questions.

One employee refused to get a shot and was terminated. The worker reached back out days later, inquiring about getting vaccinated and coming back to work. “His position is no longer available to him,” Mr. Tileston said.

Many business owners are preparing for a federal vaccine mandate, slated for Jan. 4, to take full effect. A welder at Dyco’s facility in Bloomsburg, Pa.

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