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Many St. Louis-area companies spurn vaccine mandates, opt instead to encourage, reward

Many St. Louis-area companies spurn vaccine mandates, opt instead to encourage, reward

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ST. LOUIS — As major U.S. companies roll out COVID-19 vaccine mandates, few St. Louis-area corporations are requiring vaccination, many choosing instead to encourage or reward workers to get the jab.

Still, with a new surge of cases arriving just as many employers were moving remote workers back into offices, some are reevaluating their pandemic protocols.

General Motors, with a plant in the region, announced masks for all workers, and said salaried employees will soon be required to report their vaccination status. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is mandating vaccinations.

And health insurance giant Centene Corp. is delaying many workers’ return to the office and requiring some to be vaccinated.

“Our industry must be a leader in addressing vaccine hesitancy,” Centene President and CEO Michael Neidorff said in a statement announcing the new policy on Thursday.

The movement toward required vaccinations in the workplace, which began largely in U.S. hospitals, has been met with pushback. But increasingly, large companies and state and federal leaders are either requiring employees to get the shots or report their vaccination status.

The precedent

On April 1 the Houston Methodist Hospital system became the first major U.S. health care system to institute a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, setting a June 7 deadline for employees. A group of 117 employees took the health system to court over the mandate, but a federal judge dismissed the case on June 12.

“This is not coercion,” the judge wrote in the dismissal order. “It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer. (The plaintiff) can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.”

On June 15 — in the hopes of getting employees immunized before autumn, when colder, drier conditions have historically allowed other viruses to spread more easily — BJC HealthCare and Washington University announced vaccine requirements for workers.

In the weeks that followed, the rest of the region’s major health systems announced similar mandates: St. Luke’s Hospital on June 25, SSM Health on June 28, Mercy on July 7, and Ascension on July 27. Thursday, MU Health Care in Columbia announced a vaccine requirement, too.

Meanwhile, Missouri is facing a growing wave of COVID-19 infections. Hospitals in southwest Missouri are overwhelmed, and St. Louis-area officials have warned that hospitalizations here are already following a similar trajectory: The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force reported on Friday 493 confirmed COVID-19 patients in area hospitals, up from a low point of 93 on June 9.

Less than half of Missourians have now received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, about 9 percentage points under the national average. And providers across the state are administering just around 13,000 daily shots, according to state data, down from 56,000 in mid-April.

The law

Rob Gatter, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law, said legally it is “absolutely permissible” for employers to require COVID-19 vaccines.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises that federal nondiscrimination laws do not prevent employers from requiring vaccination for workers entering the physical workplace, as long as there are reasonable accommodations for employees with medical or religious conflicts.

The decision may be different for a company with employees who work entirely remotely, Gatter said. But some workplaces, like nursing homes, for example, are at higher risk of COVID-19 spread. And what is now the most common strain, the delta variant of the coronavirus, is estimated to be about twice as transmissible as the original variants.

“With that kind of information, you have to start to ask not just, ‘Is an employer OK, legally, if they require the vaccine?’” Gatter said. “You have to start to ask, ‘Are they OK, legally, not to?’”

Politicians have continued to push back. On Wednesday, a group of six Republican state senators urged Gov. Mike Parson, also a Republican, to call an extraordinary legislative session so that lawmakers may “take any and all appropriate steps to protect Missouri workers from vaccine mandates.”

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry responded to the effort on Thursday, calling restrictions on vaccine mandates “reckless.”

“We don’t need new roadblocks to recovery,” chamber President and CEO Daniel Mehan said in a statement. “We continue to strongly encourage Missourians to get vaccinated as soon as possible to protect themselves, their communities and our economic recovery.”

Shifting gears

Momentum seemed to shift in recent days as governments and businesses alike announced vaccinations plans.

The Biden administration announced on July 29 that all federal employees will be required to provide their vaccination status; those who aren’t fully vaccinated must wear a mask and get tested regularly.

North Carolina and California are requiring state employees to report their vaccination status, and the unvaccinated will be required to get tested weekly. Some large companies are requiring the shots, like Google, Facebook, Tyson Foods and United Airlines, just announced on Friday. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley employees will be required to disclose their vaccination status.

Clayton-based Centene Corp. on Thursday announced that it was delaying its return to in-person work, from Sept. 13 to Oct. 18, to allow time for employees to get vaccinated.

The company asked all 68,500 employees to provide proof of vaccination as soon as possible, and said those who do not will be required to get tested regularly and wear masks at all times in the office. Contractors and subcontractors will have to attest they have been vaccinated before entering Centene premises. The shots are mandatory for employees who visit people’s homes or go into clinical facilities as part of their work. And it will be a condition of employment for new workers starting in October.

Neidorff called for “strong collaboration” between private and public sector leaders.

“We are deeply committed to protecting our members and employees as the delta variant continues its spread across the U.S., causing a new pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Neidorff said in the statement.

The St. Louis Fed is requiring vaccines for all 1,430 of its employees, 1,300 of them based in St. Louis.

“While Reserve bank employees are not government employees, Federal Reserve banks have historically followed the spirit of such broad federal policies,” a St. Louis Fed spokeswoman said in an email.

General Motors is not mandating the shots, but will require salaried employees to report their vaccination status.

GM employs nearly 3,800 at its assembly plant in Wentzville, 365 of them salaried. The company reinstated a mask requirement for the plant on July 20, citing rising case rates in the region, and on Tuesday the company began requiring masks in all facilities, nationwide.

Commerce Bank, with a corporate office in St. Louis, has not required its roughly 4,600 employees to get the shot. Nor has Clayton-based rental car giant Enterprise Holdings, which employs 4,500 locally; Schnuck Markets Inc., with 13,000 workers; nor St. Louis-based gas utility Spire Inc. and its 3,600 employees.

Commerce, Enterprise and Schnucks require employees to mask up.

Some are offering incentives for vaccinations: Schnucks is offering $100 in rewards points.

And the city of St. Louis, which was evaluating a vaccination mandate, is offering $100 gift cards for any city employee who gets vaccinated.

Austin Huguelet and David Nicklaus of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Editor's note: Schnuck Markets Inc. has 13,000 employees. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect total.

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