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Arkansans weigh Biden's shots push for big businesses

Chamber chief calls order ‘a big step’; Hutchinson expresses his opposition by The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | September 10, 2021 at 6:45 a.m.
These undated file photos show (from left) Randy Zook, the longtime president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce; Gov. Asa Hutchinson; and Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photos)

The federal requirement announced Thursday that employees of businesses with more than 100 workers be vaccinated for covid-19, or be tested weekly for the virus, drew swift response from Arkansas political and business leaders.

Randy Zook, the longtime president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, called the move by the Biden administration significant.

"It has the full weight of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration," he said. "So it would have the full force of that agency. It's a big step."

He also said he believes it will hold up to a legal challenge.

"I would not be surprised to see a court challenge, but my guess is they would prevail," Zook said. "I'm not sure who would file a protest. In today's world, I think there it would be a court challenge that would be resolved pretty quickly."

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The state chamber represents about 1,100 businesses, many of them with a workforce exceeding 100 employees.

"We just recognize that if that mandate comes down from OSHA, I am sure a high percentage of our employers would comply with it subject to any revisions due to a court challenge," Zook said.

Without knowing more about the proposed rule, Zook said was unsure which kind of businesses the mandate will cover.

"I'm not sure if it's only private businesses or if it covers nonprofits or some of the hospitals might fall under this," Zook said. "Certainly the nursing homes will, the larger ones that have that many employees."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed a law in April barring most state and local government entities from requiring people to be vaccinated, said he is opposed to the requirement.

"I fully support continued efforts to increase vaccination rates across our nation but the federal government mandates on private businesses are not the right answer," Hutchinson said in a statement.

"I have been consistent in the freedom of businesses to require their employees to be vaccinated and I have opposed the government from saying businesses cannot exercise that freedom. The same principle should protect the private sector from government overreach that requires them to vaccinate all employees."

Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston also weighed in on the proposed vaccine mandate.

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"I have great concern with the federal government overstepping their bounds and requiring business to vaccinate their employees," Preston said. "If a business chooses to make vaccines a condition of employment that is their right to do so. The business community has already done a tremendous job encouraging vaccination. Employers know their employees best and are able to make decisions on their own, this could have negative consequences on our workforce."

The new regulations also require vaccination or weekly testing of the 17 million workers at health care facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid.

Officials with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock didn't yet know what steps would need to be taken to comply with the forthcoming rules from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said.

Act 977 of 2021, which bars most state and local government entities from imposing vaccine requirements, allows a "state-owned or state controlled medical facility" to impose such a mandate with the approval of the Legislative Council.

"Our leadership has not had a chance yet to review the mandate, so they will do that and then make a decision on how to proceed," she said.

Arkansas Department of Human Services officials also didn't yet know how the regulation will apply to state-run facilities such as the Arkansas State Hospital, human development centers and the Arkansas Health Center in Benton, department spokeswoman Amy Webb said.

"We're waiting for additional guidance from the federal government on exactly what that looks like and who it applies to," Webb said. "They haven't issued those rules yet, so we're waiting for more information from them."

A couple of Arkansas' Fortune 500 companies have a slight head start on the new regulations.

Walmart Inc. is requiring employees who work at its Bentonville headquarters and those who travel frequently within the U.S. to get vaccinated by Oct. 4 unless they have an approved exception. The retailer encourages store and supply chain workers to get vaccinated, but doesn't currently require it.

Tyson Foods is one of the few large companies to set a vaccination mandate for its workforce. It has encouraged workers to get the covid-19 vaccination for months, hosting free vaccination events at the processing plants and giving $200 inoculation bonuses to workers to encourage them to get the vaccine before the bonuses' November deadline.

Tyson poultry workers who provide proof of vaccination can enter weekly drawings this month to win $10,000.

Information for this article was contributed by Noel Oman, Andy Davis, Andrew Moreau, Serenah McKay and Nathan Owens of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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