Business/Economy

Alaska businesses have mixed reactions to federal vaccine mandate

Alaska employers and business leaders have had mixed reactions after President Joe Biden last week said he would order larger employers to require that workers get vaccinated or tested weekly to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Many Alaska businesses in that category, with more than 100 employees, said they’re awaiting guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency is developing the new rules, according to a White House statement on Thursday.

As many as 100 million workers will be impacted nationally, including many in Alaska. Companies that don’t comply with the directive could be hit with large penalties, according to news articles. The directive is part of a sweeping new order from the Biden administration that will also require vaccinations for executive branch employees and federal contractors, adding millions more workers.

Some Alaska employers and union leaders said the proposal will help combat a labor shortage by slowing the spread of the virus and easing concerns about safety at work.

But some employers believe the requirements could cost them workers.

Jim Jansen, chairman of Lynden, a large transportation and logistics company, said the mandate oversteps personal liberties.

“We at Lynden will oppose this aggressively, taking legal action if necessary,” Jansen said in an email. “If we lose people due to vaccination requirements, we will be unable to provide our essential services, and many of these services are critical for rural Alaska. We are struggling with enough labor to do our jobs now and can’t withstand any people resigning over this.”

[Biden’s vaccine push wins cautious business support as political opponents fume]

One major Alaska business group panned the policy. In a statement on Friday, Kati Capozzi, president of the Alaska Chamber, called the requirement a “disturbing precedent that could be used to justify any manner of regulation on the private sector.”

It will add “cost and uncertainty” to businesses already struggling to recover from the pandemic, and could increase polarization over the virus, according to Capozzi. The state chamber recently announced a $49,000 weekly prize to encourage vaccinations, paid for with federal COVID-19 relief aid.

“We anticipate this announcement will come with many legal challenges, but in the meantime, the Alaska Chamber will do everything we can to ensure this rule is the least burdensome as possible to Alaska businesses,” Capozzi said.

Jon Bittner, with the Alaska Small Business Development Center, said close to 1,000 businesses in Alaska employ at least 100 workers, based on 2018 data. They represent about 6% of all businesses in the state, but employ more than half the workers in Alaska, he said.

Some GOP governors have threatened to sue to stop the vaccinate-or-test mandate. In a statement on Friday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy stopped short of threatening legal action. But he said his administration will identify every tool possible to protect individual rights from what he described as the president’s effort to force people to vaccinate.

Dunleavy said vaccines are the best way to stop COVID-19, but he called the requirements “ill-conceived, divisive, and unamerican.”

“At a time in which we are called to work together, forced medical procedures run counter to our collective sense of fairness and liberty,” Dunleavy said in the statement.

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Responding to the legal threats from GOP governors, Biden on Friday told reporters, “Have at it.” He indicated that he was disappointed that Republican governors are putting politics over science when it comes to safety measures like vaccines and masks.

Rob McKinney, chief executive for Ravn Alaska, the state’s largest rural airline with about 400 employees, said the company has encouraged vaccinations among its employees, but not required them. It will implement the federal regulations, once they’re finalized.

“My gut is it will be challenged in court,” he said.

It will boost costs for employers like any other regulation, he said. Companies will have to track and keep records of employee vaccinations and testing. That will create challenges for the airline, which operates in several remote communities in addition to Anchorage.

“I don’t see that it’s not possible to comply, but it won’t be free and it won’t necessarily be easy,” he said.

Some local business owners said the mandate would have benefits.

Laile Fairbairn, president of Locally Grown Properties, which manages Snow City Cafe, Spenard Roadhouse and two other Anchorage restaurants, said she’s heard from some restaurant managers who are pleased with the new rule.

They’re happy it could improve safety at work, perhaps compelling some unvaccinated coworkers to get the shot, she said.

Fairbairn said she’s grateful for the testing option. “We have some awesome team members who have chosen not to get vaccinated for whatever reason, so that’s important to me that they feel supported,” she said.

The restaurants, including South Restaurant and Coffeehouse and Crush Wine Bistro, require that customers and staff wear facemasks. They’ve given four hours of paid time off for employees with vaccination cards.

Fairbairn said she’s hopeful the new rules, once finalized, will combat hiring and scheduling challenges. Often, people can’t work because they’ve been exposed to someone with the virus or catch it themselves.

“Testing logistics will be the biggest challenge,” she said. “But hopefully there will be home tests, or testing on site, that makes it a little easier.”

Marvin Jones, president of Unite Here local 878, representing about 1,100 workers in the hospitality industry, said the new rules will be a relief for hotel and restaurant workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic.

“I’m happy for it and I hope it’s successful,” he said.

It could bring people who have been concerned about getting COVID-19 back into the workforce, he said.

“It will give them more peace of mind, to know the more people are vaccinated the safer they will be,” he said.

Joelle Hall, president of Alaska AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions representing about 50,000 workers, said workers must be involved in negotiating the specific rules that will be implemented in workplaces.

She said the new rules can bring consistency to business policies that now have a hodgepodge of COVID-19 requirements because of hands-off approaches by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“Everyone should be vaccinated and employers should work with employees as best as possible” to implement the mandate when it’s in place, she said.

Fred Meyer grocery stores in Alaska, part of the Kroger chain, will sell rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests at a reduced price for the next three months to help businesses comply with the new mandate, a Kroger spokeswoman said in an email.

Biden on Thursday announced that the grocery chain, along with Walmart and Amazon, would sell the tests “at cost,” about 35% cheaper than normal.

The grocery chain did not say how the vaccine-or-test mandate will affect Fred Meyer employees.

“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,” the statement from Kroger said.

Rebecca Logan runs the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, which represents about 500 companies, she said. About 200 of those are large enough that the requirements would apply to them.

But she said many companies in the alliance support oil field and mining work and already have strong vaccination and testing programs.

For example, workers can’t get on a plane to Alaska’s North Slope oil fields — even if they’re vaccinated — without getting tested first, she said.

“You can’t have outbreak on the North Slope, on a rig in the Cook Inlet or at a mine, so many people already have pretty strict protocols,” she said.

She guesses it could be several weeks before the rules are final. She’s asked member companies to tell her what they think of Biden’s plan.

Early Friday, she hadn’t heard anything back.

“People are sitting back waiting” to learn more, she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Biden said he was disappointed that Republican governors are putting science over politics. It should have said Biden indicated he was disappointed that Republican governors are putting politics over science.

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