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McLean County Employers Await Specifics On Vaccine Requirement

A spokesperson for State Farm said the insurance company is awaiting specifics from the federal government on the Biden administration's COVID vaccine requirement before commenting.
Emily Bollinger
A spokesperson for State Farm said the insurance company is awaiting specifics from the federal government on the Biden administration's COVID vaccine requirement before commenting.

McLean County employers aren’t saying much about a new federal rule that requires companies with 100 or more workers to require all staff get the COVID vaccination.

Several large employers in McLean County, including hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, already have COVID vaccine requirements in place. Several adopted the requirements on their own. Schools were included in Gov. JB Pritzker’s vaccine requirement.

The requirement coming down from the federal requirement offers a weekly COVID testing options for those who refuse to vaccinate.

Several employers, including State Farm, indicated they are waiting for specific federal guidance before determining how they will proceed.

“When the (U.S.) Department of Labor issues the proposed regulation, we will analyze it to better understand the impact at State Farm,” public affairs specialist Gina Morss-Fischer said in an email. “Right now, our protocols remain in place until we know more.”

The Bloomington-based insurer has been transitioning to a hybrid work format over the spring and summer.

Country Financial employees returned to the company’s corporate offices in Bloomington on Aug. 30. Spokesperson Chris Coplan said that company will allow eligible employees to work remotely up to two days each week.

Coplan said Country Financial and Illinois Farm Bureau continue to monitor federal, state and local health guidance, including the newly released plan from the Biden administration. He added the organizations “strongly encourage” vaccinations but won’t say if they support a requirement.

“As we review future guidance from the Department of Labor related to the president’s plan, our commitment to the safety of our employees, representatives, members and clients remains our focus,” Coplan said.

A spokesperson for one of Bloomington-Normal’s fastest growing employers, Rivian, gave no indication of the company’s views about a vaccine requirement.

“We don’t want to share many details regarding our health and safety program as it’s ever evolving, but we require twice a week testing on site in Normal for all Rivian employees and contractors,” said Zach Dietmeier, senior communications manager for its Normal plant. “We already exceed the standards set forth yesterday at all our U.S. locations.”

A spokesperson for the Bridgestone tire plant in Normal didn’t weigh in on the vaccine requirement but said the company has proactively tried to boost vaccinations among staff.

“Bridgestone has been a strong advocate of our teammates getting vaccinated, including strongly encouraging vaccinations through a $100 vaccine support payment, on-site vaccination events and by providing constant educational information and resources to employees,” said Emily Weaver, director of communications for Bridgestone Americas.

HR response

A human resources expert at Illinois State University said the Biden administration's requirement that all staff get the COVID vaccine in companies with 100 or more workers should take the pressure off employers who want their workers to be immunized.

Associate professor of management in human resources Heather Jia said onIPR’s The 21st show some employers may have resisted a vaccine mandate because some workers may quit.

“It does provide cover for companies to say ‘Look it’s not us, it’s the government.' They can put the blame elsewhere," Jia said. “It also provides cover for the employer in the sense that they don’t have to worry so much about retention issues because if every company had to do it, (employees) have fewer options.”

Jia said the Biden administration is requiring the vaccine for more populations because incentives like lotteries and scholarships haven't noticeably improved vaccination rates.

Religious exemption

A legal scholar said a religious exemption to COVID vaccine requirements is not the “free pass” that employers or vaccine skeptics might think.

Matthew Finkin, a law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law and director for the Program in Comparative Labor and Employment Law & Policy, said employers have a "minimal duty" to provide accommodations for an employee who refuses to get the vaccine or submit to weekly COVID testing, even if it’s for religious reasons.

“Even a nurse who can be given a remote desk job, for example, even though that might not be acceptable there, that is an accommodation. If she is not willing to accept it in lieu of vaccination, she loses her job,” Finkin said. “The texture of law here is pretty clear.”

Finkin added employers must state their religion and not simply refer to a moral objection to receiving the vaccine. He said states have no legal standing to reject the Biden administration's vaccine requirement for companies with 100 or more workers.

He calls it “pure political posturing” that some governors won't enforce vaccine requirements.

Public employers

The vaccine requirement does not apply to government employers who meet the employment threshold, according to Town of Normal director of communications and community relations Cathy Oloffson.

“Based on guidance from the legal firm the Town of Normal works with on employment matters, it currently appears the legislation will not apply to most employees of the state and local government,” Oloffson said.

The Town of Normal has approximately 400 employees, McLean County government has more than 800 workers and the City of Bloomington has close to 670 staff, according to the latest data from the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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