With big money on the line, universities adopt COVID-19 employee vaccine rules

Contracted workers are being told to comply with Biden's mandate, but some institutions are holding out.
By: | October 26, 2021
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A robust 99% of all University of Minnesota employees have attested that they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. As near perfect as that measure might appear, proof of those doses is the measuring stick it must enforce to satisfy the federal government’s most pressing mandate.

At Minnesota and other institutions that conduct heavy research, compliance means adhering to President Joe Biden’s directive to require all of those working in larger businesses with federal contracts to get vaccinated.

The potential risk of not complying with Executive Order 14042, Ensuring Adequate COVID Safety Protocols for Federal Contractors – potential losses of millions of dollars in aid – is simply too great, said Joan Gabel, President of the University of Minnesota system.

“This federal support represents the lifeblood of any world-leading research institution like ours,” she wrote in a letter to the UM community. “For us, it also supports the core of our mission and involves countless faculty, staff, and students in direct research activities, as well as services and other mission support that make possible the science and discovery we produce.”

Those employees involved in any way with those contracts must have their vaccine schedules completed by Dec. 8. That’s true at other institutions across the nation, so it is a race against the clock to beat that deadline, with a mini holiday break for Thanksgiving in the way.

Institutions are split into three factions: those that adopted mandates for employees long before Biden’s request; those that did so to meet the guidance in the past month, including Penn State University and the University of Kansas; and those in states such as Florida and Texas, which remain holdouts as their states and attorney generals try to fight the federal government’s imposition to force those vaccines.

That has led to a lot of confusion over whether to follow state or federal directives to follow. A few institutions from conservative states have reluctantly given in, but are looking closely at courts to see if the mandate will be reversed.

“It appears as though the university is subject to these new requirements and is required to ensure that all covered employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless the employee is legally entitled to an accommodation due to a medical condition or religious belief,” University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd told employees in UT’s new requirement, which will be up to individual campuses to enforce.

Continued testing and employees who have gotten COVID-19 are not exempt from UT’s requirement, laid out in Biden’s Safer Federal Workforce Task Force. The lone exception would be those exemptions Boyd referenced.

The attorney general has vowed to reverse that order in Alabama. But for now, Auburn University will comply. It has a reported $200 million in federal contracts with NASA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. Auburn is citing the benefits that extend beyond campus, where nearly 100,000 federal contracts totaling $12 billion have been granted.

Others have signed on too, largely because the threat of noncompliance could mean reductions in funding, if not now but in the future. North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have a combined $660 million tied to federal contracts. So full-time, part-time and graduate students who fall under the guidance must be vaccinated. At Dartmouth College that even includes remote workers.

Those who don’t receive them are subject to termination. The University of Michigan says staffers who don’t state their intentions by Nov. 8—either getting vaccinated or submitting their exemption requests will be suspended without pay. If they aren’t vaccinated by Dec. 8 they will be terminated. Unvaccinated faculty will be given a 30-day unpaid leave window once the semester ends before the dismissal process begins. Like Dartmouth, Michigan also says its remote employees must get vaccinated.