Businesses and local government learning how President’s vaccine rule will affect them

Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 5:18 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Hundreds of Mid-South businesses are trying to figure out what a new vaccine rule laid out by the Biden Administration means to them. The President said a rule will be forthcoming mandating vaccines or weekly COVID-19 testing for businesses with more than 100 employees.

The Greater Memphis Chamber said there are 758 payrolled companies in Shelby County with 100 or more employees, and nearly 1,000 in the Mid-South.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s going to take a lot of great work,” White House Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Bechara Choucair said. “We’ll do this as fast and as appropriate as possibly.”

Along with signing executive orders mandating vaccines for companies receiving federal money and contracts and federal workers, President Biden said he will also ask the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to draft an emergency temporary standard to mandate vaccines or weekly COVID-19 testing in companies with 100 or more employees.

“This is a very opportunistic virus,” Choucair said. “It’s finding those who are unvaccinated and it’s affecting them. So, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to make sure we’re creating a safe environment for people.”

In the Mid-South the Greater Memphis Chamber says there are 934 payrolled business locations that fall under this criteria.

The Chamber’s Director of Communications Ryan Poe sent Action News 5 this statement: “Many questions remain about the new vaccine requirements, but it’s fair to say they could have sweeping implications for Memphis companies and their employees. The Greater Memphis Chamber is in the process of listening to our businesses and subject-matter experts as we try to fully understand those implications, and we will be closely monitoring and sharing any new developments with the business community.”

Some of Shelby County’s largest employers are also trying to figure it all out. International Paper employs 2,400 people at its Memphis headquarters. On Friday they said: “International Paper strongly encourages its employees to receive a Covid-19 vaccination, but does not currently require the vaccine. We are reviewing the specifics of the Biden Administration’s Covid-19 plan, announced on September 9. As we learn more, we will communicate next steps with our employees.”

Kroger employs 6,200 people in the Mid-South. A spokesperson for the grocery store and pharmacy chain said: “Kroger’s priority remains the health and safety of our associates and customers. We continue to strongly encourage everyone to protect themselves and each other by wearing a mask and getting the vaccine. We have partnered with the Biden Administration on several initiatives to accelerate COVID-19 vaccination in America, including our Community Immunity $5 million giveaway, and as the President announced yesterday, Kroger is one of three national partners who have agreed to make at-home, rapid COVID-19 tests available to customers at cost for the next 100 days. We look forward to reviewing guidance from the Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration about President Biden’s plan and what that means for employers and employees.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee called President Biden’s plan an unconstitutional power grab. Currently state law prohibits any government entity from mandating the vaccine, but there’s a chance local and state government employees may be included in this rule

President Biden said he will have the Occupational Health and Safety Administration or OSHA draft an emergency declaration creating this new vaccine mandate rule. OSHA governs safety measures inside millions of private businesses, but in Tennessee we have our own OSHA-approved division which oversees the state’s private and public sector.

“We’re hopeful it’s not just private businesses but governments like ours,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said. “We’re looking at it. The rules are going to be promulgated and disseminated very soon.”

According to OHSA, states who have their own OSHA-approved divisions, like Tennessee’s TOSHA, will have 30 days to create its own standard after the OSHA rule is released, but it must be as effective as the federal rule or more.

Action News 5 reached out to the department to learn if the forthcoming rule will affect local and state employees.

A spokesperson said: “OSHA has yet to release emergency rules regarding the federal mandate employers with more than 100 employees require them to receive a vaccination or weekly COVID-19 test to continue working. Until then, TOSHA cannot comment on the impact, if any, the federal mandate will have on Tennessee employers and government entities.”

Mayor Harris said he hopes this is an opportunity for his hands become untied.

“What’s happening now is we are at war,” Harris said. “We’re going to have to require people to not only look at themselves but look at what the community needs.”

Shelby County Government is currently mandating regular COVID-19 testing for frontline workers, and hoping to expand it to more employees.

The County employs 5,000 people, the 11th highest in the region. The City of Memphis the sixth top employer, with 8,200 employees.

Ursula Madden, Chief Communications Officer for the City of Memphis said: “As the President’s plan was only released yesterday afternoon, the Mayor and his team are currently reviewing to see what, if any, adjustments will need to be made. Once those determinations happen, we will keep the public informed.”

FedEx is the top employer in the Mid-South with 30,000 employees. Action News 5 has reached out to the corporation for comment following President Biden’s announcement several times and has not gotten a response.

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