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Nebraska officials criticize vaccine mandate; Ricketts says 'we will fight back'
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Nebraska officials criticize vaccine mandate; Ricketts says 'we will fight back'

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President Joe Biden will enforce a federal mandate that workers at U.S. companies with at least 100 employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly starting on Jan. 4, a reprieve to businesses facing labor shortages during the holiday season, U.S. officials said on Thursday. Conway G. Gittens reports.

Some Nebraska government and business officials spoke out Thursday after the federal government provided details of President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large employers.

Gov. Pete Ricketts called the vaccine mandate "draconian" and "an abuse of power."

Pete Ricketts mug

Ricketts

“If this rule is allowed to take effect, many Nebraskans will be at risk of losing their jobs over something that should remain a personal health choice," Ricketts said in a statement.

Biden announced plans for the mandate in September. It requires federal employees and contractors, most health care workers and people who work at businesses with at least 100 employees to get vaccinated or face strict masking and testing requirements.

Ricketts, AG take steps to block federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate

On Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration published an Emergency Temporary Standard that puts rules into place to enforce the mandate and gives covered entities until Jan. 4 to ensure their employees either are vaccinated or undergo weekly testing and wear masks if they work in person.

Companies that fail to comply could face penalties of as much as $13,600 per violation.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said the rule is needed because COVID-19 has had a "devastating impact" on workers, and case levels remain dangerously high.

“We must take action to implement this emergency temporary standard to contain the virus and protect people in the workplace against the grave danger of COVID-19," Walsh said in a news release. "Many businesses understand the benefits of having their workers vaccinated against COVID-19, and we expect many will be pleased to see this OSHA rule go into effect.”

Companies operating in Nebraska that have implemented mandatory vaccines have had varying levels of success.

Mask mandate extended in Lincoln, Lancaster County

Lincoln's Bryan Health reported that out of its more than 5,500 employees, only 10 either resigned or were fired because they failed to comply, while about 300 were granted an exception.

Tyson Foods said last week that 96% of its employees had been vaccinated in advance of a Monday deadline. The company said it planned to terminate employees who didn't comply, but it did not provide a number.

Omaha-based Union Pacific is currently battling its labor unions in court over a proposed mandate that would require employees to be vaccinated by Dec. 8.

State senators ask for special session to ban COVID vaccine mandates

Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the business community understands that COVID-19 vaccines are important in efforts to get things back to normal, both economically and in daily life, and backs efforts to encourage people to get vaccinated.

However, he said, "We oppose the proposed Biden administration vaccine mandate on employers for several reasons, including cost to employers for enforcing personal decisions outside the workplace and potential impact on an already strained workforce."

Bryan Slone

Bryan Slone

But Slone also made it clear that the Chamber opposes any effort by state government to disallow companies from requiring employees to get vaccinated.

“We also oppose bans on vaccine requirements. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all policy that meets the needs of all states, all communities, all employers or all Nebraskans," he said. "Accordingly, Nebraska businesses must have the freedom to make the decision that works best for them, their operations, and their employees in their communities."

Nebraska senators come up short in call for special session to ban vaccine mandates

A group of Republican state senators attempted to call a legislative special session to consider a prohibition on vaccine mandates, but they failed to get enough votes.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has already joined with nine other state attorneys general to file a lawsuit over the vaccine mandate for employees of federal contractors, and he earlier said he planned to review the federal mandates as they are implemented and was "prepared to take appropriate legal action."

Peterson's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, but Ricketts said he and the attorney general had been in contact about Thursday's announcement.

"We will fight back," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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