Iowa says it won't enforce federal COVID vaccine-or-testing mandate for employers

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States

Iowa's labor commissioner said Friday that the state has submitted notice that it will not be adopting or enforcing the Biden administration's vaccine and testing requirements for large employers.

The state's decision comes days before the requirement is set to go into effect for employers across the country. It also comes as the controversial federal standard is being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, making its future uncertain.

Iowa Labor Commissioner Rod Roberts said in a news release that the state has determined its existing standards "are at least as effective as the federal standard change."

Iowa is among 21 states that have an individual state plan for workplace safety, which gives the state the option of writing its own workplace rules for public and private sector workers. But those rules can’t be weaker than what the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires.

“As a state plan state, the Iowa Division of Labor is charged with protecting the health and safety of those in the workplace and has the authority to enforce workplace safety and health standards for Iowa businesses,” Roberts said. “Iowa doesn’t have a standard requiring the COVID-19 vaccine or testing. But after closely reviewing the federal OSHA Vaccine Mandate, Iowa has determined it will not adopt the federal standard."

Roberts did not elaborate in the release on how the state's plan will be as effective in lieu of requiring vaccinations or testing. Spokespeople for Iowa Workforce Development and the governor's office did not immediately return emails seeking comment Friday night.

More: Here's how Iowa Republican lawmakers plan to continue their fight against COVID-19 mandates in 2022

U.S. Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said in a statement Saturday that "we fully expect" states with their own workplace safety and health rules to comply with the vaccine mandate. The mandate is an emergency temporary standard, issued "where the agency finds that workers are subjected to a grave danger and a new standard is necessary to protect them," she said.

When OSHA issues an emergency temporary standard, state plans must adopt a state standard within 30 days "that is at least as effective" as the federal standard, she said. If a state fails to do so, OSHA would have the authority to step in and enforce the federal standard.

In a news release Friday evening, Gov. Kim Reynolds applauded the state's decision not to enforce the federal standard, saying Iowa is "going to continue to protect the freedoms and liberties of Iowans."

"The Biden administration continues to ignore the constitutional rights afforded to all Americans, which our country was built on," she said in a statement. "Instead, they’d rather dictate health care decisions and eliminate personal choice, causing our businesses and employees to suffer and exacerbating our workforce shortage.”

The federal OSHA's emergency temporary standard would require employees of businesses with 100 or more employees to either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. President Joe Biden has said the mandate is needed to "protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers" and to reduce the spread of COVID.

Federal OSHA is giving employers until Monday, Jan. 10, to come into compliance and will not cite anyone for noncompliance with the testing requirements until Feb. 9 if they are exercising "reasonable, good faith efforts" to come into compliance.

More: Iowa Republicans are pushing back against COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Will they take on the measles too?

One expert said Friday that Iowa officials likely can't actually decline to enforce the mandate. Debbie Berkowitz, who served as the federal OSHA chief of staff from 2009 to 2015, told the Des Moines Register that state plans have to follow the minimum standards set out by the federal agency.

She predicted that federal officials will try to take over enforcement of occupational standards if Iowa officials follow through on Friday's announcement. She pointed out that federal officials made a similar threat when leaders in Arizona, South Carolina and Utah refused to implement vaccine and testing rules for health care workers.

"The state will be in violation of their State Plan agreement and we can assume Federal OSHA will move to take over enforcement," she said in an email Friday night.

Some of Iowa's biggest employers have already required vaccines or testing of their employees. Wells Fargo & Co., which employs about 13,000 workers in central Iowa, told employees to upload vaccine cards to an online portal in December. Unvaccinated workers coming into the office would need to take tests beginning in January, the company said.

Tyson Foods, with about 11,000 employees in Iowa, implemented a vaccine mandate Nov. 1. Principal Financial Group, which employs about 6,500 workers in Des Moines, asked for workers' vaccine statuses at the end of last year.

"We have acquired the information needed to inform the implementation process if pending regulations proceed," Principal spokesperson Melissa Higgins said in an email Friday.

Even though the federal mandate takes effect Monday, Berkowitz said enforcement of the law was not going to start in Iowa Monday — regardless of Roberts' announcement — since the federal government has given state plans an extra month to enforce the rules.

Reynolds has been a vocal critic of vaccine mandates and has joined lawsuits against the Biden administration's proposed vaccine rules.

Also Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the proposed mandate, and a majority of the high court signaled it is skeptical of the federal agency's authority to issue the requirement.

Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at irichardson@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at tjett@registermedia.com, 515-284-8215, or on Twitter at @LetsJett.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa won't enforce OSHA vaccine mandate before Supreme Court ruling

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