Most state workers get COVID shots, but some face discipline

Published 5:53 pm Friday, October 8, 2021

ST. PAUL — Some Minnesota government employees say that a month into the COVID-19 vaccine policy for state workers, their agencies are beginning to ramp up discipline for employees who either won’t get the vaccine or submit to weekly testing.

About two thirds — or more than 20,000 — of the nearly 27,000 Minnesota government workers who fall under the rule have signed forms certifying they’ve been inoculated. Nearly 7,000 workers either haven’t been vaccinated or don’t want to tell their boss their status and have to submit to a COVID-19 test every week when they’re due to be in the office.

More than 500 employees have declined both options, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter said in a Tuesday letter to Republican Sen. Jim Abeler, of Anoka. Employees who decline to be vaccinated or tested can be sent home, put on unpaid leave or otherwise disciplined up to termination, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

The issue was the subject of a Senate Human Services Reform and Policy Committee hearing Wednesday in which administration officials promised to refine the requirement and look into worker complaints.

The news comes amid a surge of the disease in the state, with health officials on Wednesday reporting another 40 COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota, pushing the state’s pandemic death toll to 8,243. The majority of the latest deaths occurred in September or October, and two of those who died were between the ages of 25 and 29. The Minnesota Department of Health also reported another 3,886 coronavirus infections on Wednesday, raising the state’s pandemic total to 729,334.

The COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. were tested in tens of thousands of people and proven to be safe and effective at dramatically reducing the risk of serious disease and death. The vaccines have been given to more than 200 million Americans and that real-world use plus extra government safety tracking have made clear that serious side effects are extremely rare and that any risk is far lower than the risks posed by COVID-19.

Schowalter said last week that the state was trying to “avoid that higher cost of more people get sick in the workplace by having a policy to make sure we detect, we prevent, we avoid those costs and the spread of illness in state workplaces.”

Abeler, who led Wednesday’s hearing, called for a more lenient approach, saying employees were being disrespected.

“People are required to test in front of their peers. They are called out in front of their peers,” he added. “They’ve been called out in front of their peers for signing the form. The privacy loss for some of these individuals has just been remarkable.”

Several employees told Minnesota Public Radio News that their agencies say discipline could be coming.

Department of Human Services behavioral treatment specialist Mandi Helmin spent nine days on unpaid leave after she declined to test in front of her colleagues.

“Everybody knows that the ones going in on this day (for testing) are the ones who aren’t vaccinated,” Helmin said. “That’s private information, and it causes hostile work environments when there are such strong feelings over this.”

Helmin said she was allowed to return after submitting a negative result of a test she got at her own expense.

Jeanne Wilson, an executive assistant at Rochester Community and Technical College, said she’s uncomfortable with the vaccine and objects to being ordered to test regularly. She was put on unpaid leave last month and won’t change her mind, even though she expects she’ll be fired 18 months before reaching a higher pension status.

“I stand to lose a whole lot of money over the rest of my life,” Wilson said.