Montana officials are struggling with a federal mandate against vaccination as COVID-19 cases rise

Montana State University Political Science Professor Eric Raile says this is due to the method of raising awareness.

Story Highlights:

  • For more than six months, public health officials have been urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. After initial enthusiasm, vaccine uptake has plateaued.

  • “Strongly recommending, telling people they should do things, is not effective,” he says.

Raile says Biden’s new vaccine rule is in response to that lag.

Under Biden’s mandate, businesses with 100 employees or more will be required to ensure their staff are vaccinated or tested regularly. In Montana, that includes employees at big box stores, groceries, chain gas stations and major health care organizations.

“From a public policy perspective, they’re reaching into the tool bag and looking around to see what they might be able to use.”

The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with keeping workers safe, will add Biden’s vaccine mandate to its rulebook.

Todd O’Hair, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, says he’s concerned about what the rule will entail.

“We’re really concerned about the inordinate amount of pressure and administrative sort of effort that’s going to be required of those employers,” O’Hair says. There are logistical questions, like what will be required of businesses to force compliance and what resources they will need to carry out either testing or vaccinations. Businesses that violate the rule could face fines up to $14,000.

O’Hair says the new rule could push some to leave the workforce. “Is this going to put some folks who are at a certain point in their career, that they’ll just say, you know what, rather than comply with a government mandate, we’re just going to exit stage left.”

Montana has an aging workforce, and as employers struggle to bring on new staff, O’Hair worries the mandate will exacerbate the labor shortage. O’Hair says vaccines do play a role in keeping businesses open, but he says Montana is primarily a small-business state and he’s not sure how impactful Biden’s rule will be.

Billings Clinic falls under Biden’s rule as one of Montana’s largest employers. Jim Duncan, chief communications officer for Billings Clinic, says the hospital is “beyond capacity” with patients, and staff are stretched thin. “We take care of a large geographic region, and what we’re doing is we’re pushing the limits of how we’re able to meet the needs of our community,” Duncan says. 

According to the Small Business Administration, Montana small businesses with fewer than 100 employees account for 65% of the private sector workforce. “There’s a big swath of the labor market that’s going to be left untouched by this mandate,” he says.

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