Post and Courier
November 8, 2021
South Carolina employers of more than 100 workers taking a wait-and-see approach to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate are now considering how they will respond to the order that’s being challenged in court, weighing possible fines against the impact on an already tight labor force.
Boeing Co., one of the largest U.S. defense contractors and a major employer in the Charleston region, is requiring all U.S. employees, including its 5,700 workers in South Carolina, to show proof of vaccination or an approved exemption for medical or religious reasons by Dec. 8.
The planemaker issued its rule to comply with the White House’s earlier order that requires vaccines for federal employees and contractors, though the mandate is now in legal limbo. On Nov. 6, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay of the requirement by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The U.S. Labor Department’s top legal adviser, Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda, said the agency is “confident in its legal authority to issue the emergency temporary standard on vaccination and testing,” that has the power “to act quickly in an emergency where the agency finds that workers are subjected to a grave danger and a new standard is necessary to protect them,” she said.
At least 27 states filed lawsuits fighting the proposed rule, including South Carolina.
Ahead of the legal challenge, many of the Palmetto State’s major employers were hesitant to discuss the requirement last week.
In a recent survey of about 440 businesses, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce found that about half of respondents already require COVID-19 vaccines for workers or were considering a mandate. The other half had no plan to mandate the shots.
German manufacturer Robert Bosch LLC, the multinational engineering and technology company, employs 5,000 workers at its four primary sites in South Carolina and one joint venture, accounting for roughly 20 percent of its North American workforce. It said in a statement that it “will review” the mandate for its U.S. businesses “once it has been published and determine appropriate actions.”
Under the “emergency temporary standard,” private companies with 100 or more employees must develop and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy or a plan that gives workers the option to get tested regularly and wear a mask at work.
Next month, the mandate will also require employers to provide workers paid time off to get vaccinated and paid sick leave if they suffer side effects.
OSHA said companies that fail to comply with the regulations could face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation. The agency will enforce the rule it drafted at the White House’s request.
With the details of the order and fines for noncompliance now released, Bosch and the state’s other employers with payrolls exceeding 100 will have to consider plans to implement the mandate, said Bob Morgan, S.C. Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer.
Volvo Car U.S. employs nearly 1,500 workers at its plant in Ridgeville. Like Bosch, the car manufacturer said it was too early to speak about its plans.
“They have numbers to work with, and the implementation date has moved back, so they have more time to decide what to do,” Morgan said of Volvo and other companies reviewing the order.
He added that many of the state’s largest employers disapprove of the federal government’s directive.
“They are not philosophically or politically opposed, but it is a question of pragmatics,” Morgan said.
He said business executives are more interested in keeping the economy open.
“They are already struggling to get a workforce and fear digging a deeper hole,” he said.
The primary concern for these larger employers is the loss of employees to smaller companies that are exempt from the vaccine mandate.
Morgan said employers also have “great concern that folks will leave the workforce rather than comply with the mandate.”
That would make it increasingly difficult to fill open positions in the state’s health care, retailing, tourism, education and manufacturing businesses.
S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce data showed more than 107,000 positions available in those sectors in September.
Morgan said the labor shortage is a major concern for the manufacturing sector, where “demand for products has never been better, and demand for the labor market has never been worse.”
Working from home is not an option for these businesses, and the sector could feel a substantial impact from the mandate.
The employment situation could also worsen for nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that receive money from Medicare and Medicaid.
The option for testing does not apply to those employees. Those workers will need to be vaccinated.
Employers can consider exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
Hospitals and private businesses have shown more success in imposing vaccine requirements.
The Ralph H. Johnson VA Health Care System is a federal agency “laser-focused” on vaccinating its workforce ahead of the Nov. 22 deadline for federal employees.
“Like other federal agencies, we are continuing to collect and validate vaccination information from employees as we approach the deadline,” said H. Wayne Capps, chief of public affairs and stakeholder relations.
Roper St. Francis Healthcare, a nonprofit health care system and one of the Charleston area’s largest private-sector employers, has its own vaccination mandate.
“Today, 93 percent of our workforce is vaccinated, and 4 percent have been granted either medical or religious exemptions,” said Andy Lyons, corporate communications director.
He said the hospital system continues to work with its remaining unvaccinated employees who have not been granted an exemption. They’ll need either to get inoculated or be approved for a religious or medical exemption by Nov. 15.
The Medical University of South Carolina also has COVID-19 mandates for their employees in place.
Smaller businesses, defined as having fewer than 100 employees, make up a significant portion of South Carolina’s business community.
“The requirement is for businesses with over 100 employees, which rules out nearly all small businesses in the state,” said Frank Knapp, S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, president and chief executive officer.
That didn’t prevent Diane Sumpter, president and chief executive officer of DESA, Inc., from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for her 20 member staff. Three staff members left the professional services firm that has operated out of Columbia for 36 years as a result of the requirement.
Sumpter decided to require COVID-19 shots for her staff when people, particularly those in the African American community, started dying from the virus.
South Carolina is ranked 39th nationally with 57 percent of the population receiving one vaccine dose and 50 percent now fully vaccinated.
Gov. Henry McMaster said he would not get between employers and employees and impose a ban on vaccine immunization requirements as some of his fellow Republican governors have.
Following the release of the federal mandate’s details, McMaster issued an executive order keeping his Cabinet agencies from enforcing it.
Under the new order, all state agencies will be required to report to the governor if the federal government asks whether their employees are vaccinated, McMaster said Nov. 4.
McMaster, who has taken the vaccine, said the state is exploring its options.
The legal stakes rose Nov. 5 when S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson joined his counterparts from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Utah, along with six unidentified businesses, in filing a petition challenging the vaccine requirement with the 5th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a written statement, he accused Biden of “flouting the rule of law to engage in federal overreach at its worst” and said the president “has little regard for the constitutional liberties of our citizens.”
The Biden administration issued the COVID-19 vaccine mandate after attempts to incentivize businesses and the public failed to encourage more of the vaccine-hesitant to put shots in the arm.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent shows as of Nov. 3 that 66.9 percent of the country’s population who were able to get the vaccination have had one shot, and 58 percent of the eligible population are fully vaccinated.
It is unclear how long the temporary rule will remain in place.