Mahoning Valley Employers Worry Vaccine Mandate Will Cost Them Workers

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — News of an impending COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandate has Mahoning Valley employers weighing their next steps.

The Biden administration announced Thursday that employers with 100 or more employees would be required to ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. The requirement would be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation.

For the most part, employers in the Mahoning Valley are waiting for more details on what the order could mean for them. The initial concern is that this mandate could make hiring difficult in an already challenging workforce environment.

“I am concerned that if we are required to mandate vaccines, but smaller companies are not, we may lose drivers and technicians to companies not requiring vaccines,” says Tom Fleming, chairman of Aim Transportation Solutions, Girard.

Aim is following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and encourages its employees to get vaccinated, though they are not currently required, Fleming says. Unvaccinated employees are required to wear masks indoors. And masks are required for all in-person meetings. The company employs more than 1,000 at sites across the country.

Compco, which manufactures custom metal stampings and tank heads, is about 20 people short at its plant in Columbiana, and could use another 18 to 20 at its Compco Quaker plant in Salem, says President and CEO Rick Fryda. The company employs 150 at its Columbiana site and another 120 in Salem.

Compco leaves the choice of getting vaccinated for COVID-19 to its employees. Fryda fears a mandate could make it harder to fill open jobs and could drive some existing employees away.

“We continue to struggle with hiring employees,” Fryda says. “Right now, companies are putting out a lot of incentives to hire people. We’ve done what we can. I think everybody is in a tough spot as far as the labor market goes.”

Despite efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 – including testing policies and mask mandates, installing Plexiglass on desks, putting guards on all switches, and allowing the sales team to work remotely until just a few weeks ago – some as many as 80 Compco employees and some of their immediate family members contracted the virus, according to Fryda.

Both Fryda and his wife had COVID-19 and got vaccinated after they were clear of the virus, he says. Fryda chose to get vaccinated because he travels for work and as a precaution in case a vaccine mandate was ever issued.

“I wanted to make sure I was vaccinated,” Fryda says. “I’m not going to ask somebody to do something I won’t do.”

Still, he believes getting a COVID vaccine should be a personal choice. Compco ownership hasn’t discussed the mandate because there are too few details, Fryda says.

“We don’t know what the government is going to require of businesses,” he says. “We may let this play out until it goes to the Supreme Court. I think that’s what a lot of businesses are going to do.”

B.J. Alan Co., which owns and operates Phantom Fireworks, had already planned to implement a vaccine mandate this month, says William Weimer, vice president and general counsel. For about six weeks, the company was requiring employees to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit a weekly test for the virus.

The company issued a memo Thursday announcing mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for all employees, Weimer says. The decision was made in light of the 7,897 new COVID cases reported Sept. 9 by the Ohio Department of Health.

“That sort of tipped the scales for us and there was no point in waiting any longer,” Weimer says. “[Founder and CEO] Bruce Zoldan is very concerned about protecting the health of everyone in our building. We’ve been watching the numbers spike.”

For the time being, the company will maintain its COVID protocol but is moving to a building where all workers are vaccinated, forgoing the weekly testing option, he says.

Beginning two weeks from Monday, employees will need to show evidence they have received the first dose. Additionally, “We’ll have no new hires who are not fully vaccinated,” he says.

Reasonable medical and religious exemptions will be taken into consideration and accommodation will be made in either event, Weimer says.

Phantom Fireworks employs 85 to 100 at its Belmont Avenue headquarters, of which about 95% are vaccinated, Weimer reports. Next week, the program will be rolled out to its warehouse in Trumbull County, the two Phantom Fireworks retail stores in Mahoning County and additional chains across the country, covering an average of some 450 employees.

Weimer allows the mandate could cost the company employees who are unwilling to be vaccinated. But amid the increasing cases statewide and nationally, “We believe we have no choice,” he says.

“We feel there is a greater good here,” Weimer says. “We just decided to take this step and we hope everybody in our organization sees the light.”

In the last 60 to 90 days, the Kastner Westman & Wilkins law firm has seen a “dramatic increase” in its clients mandating vaccines or enhancing testing requirements, says Michael Karst, an attorney with the Akron-based firm, which has clients in the Youngstown area.

“This is a step in the direction of what many employers are already doing,” Karst says. “Most employers tell us they have pretty good vaccination rates even before they were mandating it.”

While there have been “isolated incidents” of pushback from employees of those companies, the firm’s clients aren’t reporting employees quitting en masse, Karst adds.

For now, it’s important for employers to know there aren’t any immediate changes to the law as it applies to most private-sector employers, he says. The only new policy that was issued Thursday was the executive order requiring most federal contractors to have their employees vaccinated.

“That’s a change in policy but it only applies to federal contractors,” Karst says. “Even then, it’s only certain federal contractors who are working with the executive portion of the government.”

As far as when OSHA will issue the new standards for businesses, no timeline has been announced. The last time OSHA issued a policy on mask mandates and vaccinations for health care workers, “It took them six months to issue those standards,” he says.

“I wouldn’t expect it will take that long. But we don’t know if this is going to be next week or in a month or two from now,” he says.

Many area employers are in a holding pattern until details of the mandate are released.

In an emailed statement, Steward Health Care, Trumbull Regional Medical Center, Sharon Regional Medical Center and Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital are “currently reviewing the recently promulgated federal policy guidance and will determine its applicability to our current policies and procedures.”

The health care provider said it fully supports vaccines “as the critical tool in fighting the spread of COVID-19.”

Youngstown State University doesn’t have any details on how it will respond to any new mandates, said Ron Cole, director of university communications.

“Right now, we do not require students or employees to get vaccinated, although we strongly encourage everyone to do so,” Cole said in an email. “We have held and will continue to hold vaccination clinics on campus, the latest being Wednesday and Thursday of this week.”

YSU monitors the evolution of COVID-19, as well as case rates and actions taken at the state and federal levels, he continued, and makes adjustments to its protocols as needed. In mid-August, the university announced it would require masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, days after some faculty members protested YSU’s previous policy of making masks optional.

Penn State University announced it too is reviewing Biden’s announcement.
“We do not yet know full details or timing and will communicate our plans once we have more information,” the university said.

On Aug. 19, Penn State announced unvaccinated students and employees at all campuses must test weekly through the fall semester for COVID-19. Consequences for not complying include suspension and termination.

Cafaro Co., Niles, also had no comment on the president’s announcement. “This is all very new and I’m afraid we’re not going to comment on it right now,” said a company spokesman in an email.

A spokesman from Ultium Cells LLC said the company supports vaccinations but did not address the president’s announcement directly.

“At Ultium Cells we are strongly encouraging our employees to get vaccinated given the broad availability of safe and highly efficacious vaccines, which data consistently show is the best way to protect yourself and those around you,” according to the spokesman.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that her organization supports the president’s plan.

“The Biden administration is using every lever of government to keep people in America safe from the latest COVID-19 surge, prevent further mutations, and help every American get their lives back to some semblance of normalcy,” Weingarten said. “If we truly want to put COVID-19 behind us – for our economy to stay open and grow, our hospitals not to be overrun by COVID-19 cases, and our kids to go to school and remain in school full time, in person – we need to embrace the scientifically proven methods to keep this virus at bay: masking, testing, vaccinations and ventilation.

Pat Tiberi, president and CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable, criticized the mandates outlined by Biden as “yet another example of government overreach,” and that the government shouldn’t dictate to employers how to run their businesses.

“Just as the Ohio Business Roundtable members leaned in by establishing the Coalition to Stop the Spread, they have also leaned in on vaccine education and incentives,” Tiberi said. “While our members firmly believe the COVID-19 vaccines are both safe and effective, we also believe employers should have the autonomy to decide what is best for the health and safety of both their customers and employees.

“Furthermore, this mandate will put businesses at an even greater disadvantage for finding employees to fill the tremendous workforce gap that already exists,” Tiberi continued.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said he is “grateful” the administration is “taking strong steps to protect the public,” and that he supports the efforts at the federal level.

But Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, called Biden’s directive “a mistake,” in a tweet he posted Friday afternoon.

“We should be focused on the science of preventing virus spread — the vaccine is our best tool to stop COVID — but people and business owners should make their own decisions about vaccination,” he said.

As of this posting, DeWine has not joined other Republican governors who are threatening to sue the Biden administration.

Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas, Mark Gordon of Wyoming and Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota have threatened to fight back, calling the mandate “an assault on private businesses” and a “power grab.”

In response, Biden told the Republican governors, “Have at it.”

The president called the governors and some union officials “cavalier” for speaking out against the far-reaching vaccine requirements.

“I am so disappointed that particularly some Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities,” Biden said during a visit to Brookland Middle School in northeastern D.C.

“This isn’t a game”

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.