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Vaccine Mandate: Small business owners have mixed emotions – Morning Brew

The Biden administration announced on September 9 that small businesses with more than 100 employees would need to mandate vaccinations or carry out weekly Covid tests. Companies will face a fine of $14,000 per violation.

While many large corporations required employees to get vaccinated before this announcement, Biden’s mandate is estimated to impact an additional 80 million American employees—nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce. The announcement received major pushback from Republican state attorneys general who called the plan “disastrous and counterproductive.” Although some small business owners were shocked by the bold and sweeping actions, others have felt relief and welcomed the mandate.

Mixed feelings about the mandate

Lesia Daniel-Hollingshead, who owns Funtime Preschool with her brother, Walter Daniel, in Clinton, Mississippi, employs over 80 full-time workers. Before the vaccine mandate was announced, Daniel-Hollingshead had pursued every avenue to encourage her employees to get vaccinated. She and her brother had worked closely with her corporate attorneys to write a policy that “wouldn’t be perceived as coercive,” offered paid time off, and arranged one-on-one chats with her employees to discuss their situations to see if they were eligible for a vaccine exemption. Those worked; she estimates that Funtime’s vaccination rate went from less than 20% to 60%.

But now comes the challenging part. How to get the rest of her staff vaccinated?

Daniel-Hollingshead admitted that she has mixed feelings about the mandate. When the announcement first came out, “I could not believe that the president of the United States was standing up and telling 80 million Americans that they had to inject something into their body,” she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revived a debate over immunization and personal freedom that goes back to colonial times. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington first mandated smallpox inoculation among his troops, which was key to winning the war. The debate on smallpox has receded because the virus was eradicated in the 1970s through two centuries of vaccination. Nowadays, all 50 US states and Washington, DC, have vaccine requirements for children to attend school and child care facilities. Biden’s seemingly aggressive approach is an adoption of the emergency provision in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

After seeing her employees testing positive and having to send a dozen two-year-olds home to quarantine for 14 days, Daniel-Hollingshead has reevaluated the situation. “There’s no way we can provide child care for children without a teacher in the classroom being face-to-face with them for 11 hours,” she said. With over 200 kids who are too young to get vaccinated themselves running around her facility, Daniel-Hollingshead has to do her part to ensure their safety. As a private business solely relying on tuition, she is “in a tough spot to tell parents your child can’t come to school, but you still have to pay for your tuition.”

With only 83 employees, Funtime doesn’t technically fall under the umbrella of the mandate. But she is tired of acting like the bad cop with regards to policing her employees. “I know that without a federal vaccine mandate, I will have to rely on personal relationships to enforce measures that will keep my employees and my families safe,” Daniel-Hollingshead said. But as long as the mandate only applies to businesses over 100 workers, there is no easy fix to her dilemma.

Wishing the mandate was more inclusive

Some owners of even smaller businesses—like those maintaining single-digit payrolls—wish this mandate was more inclusive.

There are nearly 31.7 million small businesses in America. Most have no employees beyond the owner, like sole proprietorships. But small businesses are the economy’s job engine: they created 1.6 million net new jobs in 2019, with firms employing fewer than 20 workers generating 1.1 million net new jobs.

In a survey by Small Business Majority, completed before Biden’s mandate was announced, 51% of 488 small businesses surveyed supported their state requiring businesses to mandate vaccinations compared to 42% who oppose it. Among the 488 small businesses sprawling across the country, 68% have fewer than ten employees. With one-in-five small businesses facing potential closure in the next six months, they need more certainty to keep their businesses open effectively and safely.

In Denver, Jeff Bebout owns a coffee shop and roastery. He is the only full-time worker and is assisted by three part-time employees. Bebout started his business in January 2020 and has endured the economic brunt of the pandemic. Going to a public-facing job every day and having a toddler at home, Bebout firmly supports the mandate.

“I wish it was more, but even more than that, I wish we didn’t have to mandate it,” Bebout said. “I wish people would just use common sense, care about the general public, and willingly do it, but that’s just not the world we live in unfortunately.”

Others call the mandate a government overreach

Yet not all small businesses are onboard with Biden’s plan. In another survey, conducted by the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM) of 680 small businesses, 58% of owners didn’t support the mandate.

“Small business owners tend to be opposed to anything the government does to get in between employers and employees or to take the decision away from the business in setting the terms of employment,” Brian Calley, the SBAM president, explained.

Jobs Creators Network (JCN), a conservative small business advocacy group, even planned to sue the Biden administration to block the vaccine mandate. In a press release, JCN called the mandate unconstitutional. On October 13, a billboard popped up in New York City’s Time Square that read, “Hey Joe, Time to Let the Mandate GO!” JCN funded the billboard to hammer Biden’s vaccine mandate. “Stop making small businesses your vaccine police,” the sign said, next to an image of Biden putting his hand over his forehand.

When asked about the proposed lawsuit, JCN President Elaine Parker said, “It’s one thing for a business owner to require and want their employees to be vaccinated. That’s their decision. But when the federal government comes in and requires businesses to police their employees, provide paid time off…or they’re gonna face $14,000 fines per violation, it’s just overreach.” Parker clarified that her organization is not “taking a position of anti-vaccine.” She cited the labor shortage and the cost of carrying out weekly tests as major concerns of small businesses.

“I spoke with Lawrence Transportation in the Midwest… and he’s over the threshold, and they’re already having trouble getting enough truckers, technicians, and administering the people to run the company,” Parker said. “He’s very concerned that he’s going to lose people as a result.” Parker also cited how employees at companies with more than 100 employees who do not want to be vaccinated are leaving companies the size of Lawrence Transportation to work for companies below the 100-employee threshold that are exempt from the federal vaccine mandate.

In Parker’s view, labor shortages have already burdened small business owners as unemployment checks and stimulus packages kept would-be workers at home, although research has shown little correlation between stimulus measures and unemployment.  64% of those surveyed by SBAM, days after federal unemployment assistance ended, said it’s harder to keep their business fully staffed than during pre-pandemic times. For businesses desperate to hire, they fear a requirement for vaccination cards would push away otherwise eligible applicants.

Small business owners’ resistance is “heightened by the severe shortage in the workforce and the apprehension of getting involved in the personal healthcare decisions of their employees,” Calley said.

The threshold of 100 employees

Whether supporting or opposing the Biden plan, these business owners are puzzled by the number 100—the threshold set by the Biden administration to enforce the vaccine mandate.

Daniel-Hollingshead of Funtime said that to her it doesn’t matter if she has 50 employees or 150 employees; they all have to interact with children, who are among the most susceptible to Covid.

Advocacy groups and experts are also stumped about this threshold number. “We just think it’s such an arbitrary number to select, and it makes no scientific sense. It certainly makes no legal sense,” Parker said.

The US Small Business Administration views any company with fewer than 500 employees, as small businesses (and claims that 99.9% of all US businesses meet that criteria). The Affordable Care Act requires companies with 50 or more workers to offer medical coverage to full-time employees. So why not just use these numbers as the threshold to enforce the mandate?

Dr. David Michaels, the former head of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency that will regulate the mandate, tweeted, “The OSHA standard should cover all workplaces. There is no reason to limit these protections to only those workplaces with 100 or more workers.”

Physical proximity to others and exposure to disease determine a person’s risk of contracting Covid rather than the size of the business they work for. Health care workers, personal care aides, first responders, and teachers are among the occupations that face the greatest risk, according to the data from O*NET, a database maintained by the Department of Labor.

Sara Lieber from Senior Sidekicks, a senior care service in Illinois, has always done fieldwork where she accompanies the patient to different locations, like doctor’s offices and retirement facilities. “I accept risk,” she said.

But rather than having a threshold of the number of employees, she thinks the mandate should be based on the industry a business is in. According to Lieber, “If you can’t do what you do from a Zoom, then you need to be vaccinated, because the flip side of freedom is my responsibility to the people around me.”