BOISE — A day after President Joe Biden announced COVID-19 vaccine or testing requirements for employers with more than 100 workers, Idaho business leaders were uncertain how to respond. And many are concerned about how the mandates will be implemented.
The rules Biden announced Thursday mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require employees to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly. And the order requires employers to provide paid time off to get vaccinated. The rules will affect about 80 million Americans and more than 200,000 Idahoans.
The Idaho Press contacted some of the area’s top employers and business leaders to ask how the mandate will affect them.
“Idaho Power is aware of the mandate and evaluating it,” said Maria Willacy, corporate communications specialist for the energy utility.
Amalgamated Sugar, a sugar beet refining company headquartered in Boise, also is “evaluating the administration’s plan,” said Public Affairs Manager Jessica Anderson.
“We are very concerned about the practicality and feasibility of implementing these requirements when many employers already face tremendous difficulty maintaining their workforce,” Anderson said in an email. “Amalgamated Sugar actively encourages and incentivizes our employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and will continue to do so.”
Idaho has 781 private employers with more than 100 workers, which employ a total of 203,000 people, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Including government employers, there are 980 employers with 266,000 workers.
Nearly 100 of those employers are members of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, a business lobbying group. President Alex LaBeau said many questions remain. For example, what is the liability associated with complying with the president’s order, and what’s the liability associated with not complying?
“We’re just trying to get our arms around what the plan is,” LaBeau said. “We don’t quite know what to do.”
LaBeau added that his members are encouraging their employees to get vaccinated, but business leaders “don’t like being a political football.” This summer, Idaho Republican lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, unsuccessfully called for a special session of the Idaho Legislature to bar private companies from mandating vaccines. Now, Democratic President Biden has issued a sweeping vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge across the country and hospitalizations rise, especially among people who are unvaccinated.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little signaled he would not support barring companies from mandating vaccines. And this week he took a strong stance against Biden’s order, even threatening legal action. Little called Biden’s plan “unprecedented government overreach into the private sector.”
Some large Idaho businesses already require their employees to be vaccinated or get regularly tested for the virus. Boise’s Micron Technology last month announced new hires must be vaccinated, and current, in-office workers must get shots or test for COVID-19 weekly. Local health care providers Primary Health, St. Luke’s Health System and Saint Alphonsus are requiring vaccines, as well.
Boise-based grocery chain Albertsons likewise is requiring vaccinations for its corporate employees. A spokesperson did not respond to a questions clarifying whether the mandate applies to grocery store workers, too, and what Biden’s mandate would mean for Albertsons.
Meanwhile, employers that don’t require vaccinations are wondering how the mandate will affect their workforce. David Duro, CEO of the Treasure Valley YMCA, said vaccinations are encouraged among employees, but he doesn’t know how many have received the shot.
“I would think that we have a fairly high percentage of our people that are vaccinated, but I couldn’t say that for sure,” he said.
Like other employers, the YMCA is awaiting more details on the mandates.
“If there’s a federal mandate or a law, we will follow it,” Duro said. “We’re in the business of following the law.”
Mike Freeman, senior public relations and marketing manager for the Boise Metro Chamber, said the majority of its members won’t be affected, but “we have questions and concerns about a number of potential unfunded mandates and burdens on business associated with this order.” Freeman noted that the Boise Metro Chamber is “taking the rising number of cases in Idaho seriously,” while requiring negative COVID-19 tests and masks at upcoming chamber events.
Nationally, trade organizations have provided mixed responses. Leaders of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the New York Times they “will work to ensure that employers have the resources, guidance and flexibility necessary to ensure the safety of their employees and customers and comply with public health requirements.”
Small businesses will be affected, too, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, a small business trade organization.
In a statement provided to the Idaho Press, Vice President of Federal Government Relations Kevin Kuhlman said, “Small business owners and their employees want to operate in a safe and healthy manner that allows them to stay open. Additional mandates, enforcement, and penalties will further threaten the fragile small business recovery.”