Denby Fawcett: The invisible cost to taxpayers of vaccine exemptions

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No one is forcing anyone to be vaccinated against Covid-19 despite what anti-vaccination protesters denounce as their loss of freedom to control what goes into their body.

Maybe they demand the freedom to infect themselves and others with Covid or the right to die slowly on a ventilator, but let’s not go.

Governor David Ige’s emergency proclamation of August 5 requires officials to be vaccinated against Covid. In addition, a federal directive requires all private companies in the United States with 100 or more employees to impose vaccination warrants.

But no one is forced to be held down and pricked with a needle, as some protesters would have us believe. The state of Hawaii and the city and many private companies are offering a way to avoid vaccination if an employee agrees to have weekly Covid tests.

But even this generous accommodation is not enough for the most relentless runaways. A handful of vaccine resistors in Hawaii are refusing both vaccines and the opportunity to test.

When this happens, human resources departments carefully consider, on a case-by-case basis, each person’s request for religious or medical dispensation to avoid injections or to withdraw completely from testing while putting the dispenser on leave. without pay until the matter is decided. .

If employees refuse to be vaccinated or tested, they face “disciplinary action up to and including dismissal”.

You have yet to hear of many city or state employees who have been made redundant. However, Honolulu Emergency Medical Services spokeswoman Shayne Enright confirmed that a city rescuer was fired on Friday for refusing to be vaccinated or requesting an exemption to perform weekly tests.

Interestingly, Honolulu rescuers and other first responders, including police and firefighters – the workers tasked with saving lives – are the employees in droves who refuse life-saving vaccinations. More than a thousand have signed a class action lawsuit pending in federal court, claiming the vaccination and testing requirement violates their civil rights.

Lawyer Michael Green, representing first responders, said the lawsuit seeks to strike down the government’s mandate for workers to be vaccinated or accept weekly tests under threat of disciplinary action, including dismissal for not -compliance. He said the mandate should be lifted for all government employees, not just first responders. He said what is needed is a reasonable Covid testing requirement.

Aside from lawsuits – and there are others – the point I want to make is that this minority of employees refusing to be vaccinated not only risks the health and even the lives of their colleagues – it also costs unnecessary money to taxpayers and private companies.

The cost can be calculated in the extra time and staff to process and review requests for exemptions, to track employee Covid test results, making sure workers are tested weekly, and for the city, moving workers to cover employees who are given at least two hours of paid leave per week by the city to come and take their tests.

Additionally, it’s important to point out that weekly Covid testing does not offer the same level of protection to colleagues as a full vaccination. Covid test results are only as good as the day they were taken. A person who comes to work after a negative test result could contract Covid within a week of being tested and affect others.

Tamara Addison, director of human resources for Oahu Transit Services, Inc., said in a text that 173 workers, or about 8% of the 2,076 workers at the private non-profit association that runs TheBus and TheHandi-Van, asked for tests instead of vaccinations. It costs OTS about $ 10,000 per week for the ministry’s allowance of two hours of paid time off per week to take the test.

Nine OTS employees even refuse the tests.

The city and county of Honolulu also allow employees who opt for testing instead of vaccinations two hours of paid leave each week.

City employees must apply for a medical or religious exemption to qualify for the testing option.

If city employees accepted for the testing option fail to meet their weekly testing appointments, they are placed on unpaid leave until their employment status can be determined. They can be made redundant.

According to information released by the city on September 7, about 9% of some 10,000 employees refused vaccination and opted for testing instead.

The state’s education ministry says around 9% of its workforce is unvaccinated and has been offered the option of weekly testing. DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said fewer than 10 out of 22,000 DOE teachers and staff have refused both vaccinations and tests, and could therefore be fired.

Supporters of the Aloha Freedom Coalition march along Kalakaua Avenue on Saturday.
Those who oppose vaccination warrants include some officials, including first responders such as rescuers, police and firefighters. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Within state government, the Department of Human Resources Development oversees vaccination or Covid testing options for 14,000 state executive employees.

Human resources director Ryker Wada said 87% of state employees are fully vaccinated, 5% are partially vaccinated and around 8% either choose to be tested weekly or refuse to be tested. The state does not have an exact number of employees categorically rejecting the option of Covid testing, but believes it is a small percentage.

Wada said in an email he did not calculate the additional expense for monitoring, administering and managing weekly employee Covid testing as well as reviewing employee requests to opt out of testing altogether. . But he admits: “It’s an additional workload, mainly for HR and administrative staff in departments.

State employees must pay for their own Covid tests, which they are required to obtain while on leave.

When an employee is granted an exemption from vaccination and Covid testing for medical or religious reasons, the employee must go through a secondary individual examination with a person designated by the employee’s department.

The state suggests that those designated to review these cases could visit the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website for guidance in determining whether an employee seeking housing is motivated by health reasons or a cause. religious reason generated by a “sincere belief”.

Interestingly, the commission says an employer is not required to provide religious accommodation “if it is more than minimal cost or burden.”

Wada says, “If this analysis determines that the employee cannot perform all of the essential functions of his job while ensuring the safety of his colleagues in the workplace, he may be terminated.

Wada says he can’t think of many jobs that would allow an unvaccinated and untested employee to work safely with others.

Hawaii has chosen for political reasons to offer a very noisy small minority a way to avoid getting vaccinated and that is the cost we now have to bear as taxpayers.

Honolulu labor attorney Jeffrey Harris in email correspondence said public employees have no constitutional right to a religious exemption from vaccination.

He calls it a “fool’s race” for a government examiner to try to determine what constitutes an “honest belief” because the legal definition of religion is very broad under US law and it is illegal. to grant a religious exemption to a person professing a belief. in one religion and deny it to another since all religious beliefs should be treated equally.

Harris is a partner at Torkildson, Katz, Hetherington, Harris & Knorek. He has practiced labor and employment law in Hawaii for over 40 years.

Harris says a key question for public and private employers is whether granting a religious exemption from immunization entails more than a trivial or minor cost. If this is the case, the exemption request may be refused.

He says the costs to government and private employers are anything but minimal when you factor in expenses such as paying employees for time off to get vaccinated, recurring administrative costs to check and record employee weekly immunization records, and the legal costs of civil proceedings. whether an employee has to file a tort claim saying they contracted Covid-19 because some colleagues were not vaccinated.

All of this allows for an interesting discussion of the legal and financial issues facing employers. Hawaii has chosen for political reasons to offer a very noisy small minority a way to avoid getting vaccinated and that is the cost we now have to bear as taxpayers.


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