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Katie Kring, owner of Pickwick & Cherry, requires anyone who takes a class at her bakery to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or post-illness immunity.
McKenzie Robinson | SBJ
Katie Kring, owner of Pickwick & Cherry, requires anyone who takes a class at her bakery to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or post-illness immunity.

Employers gaining on mandating vaccines

Local businesses large and small require or encourage jabs

Posted online

Vaccine mandates by employers remain something of a rarity in the Springfield area, but two notable exceptions are Springfield’s largest employers: Mercy Springfield Communities and CoxHealth.

Attorney Nate Dunville, an employment law specialist and partner with Neale & Newman LLP, says more mandates are likely coming.

“The trend we’re seeing right now where employers are given more rights to protect the conditions in their workplace, we’re going to see this trend continue and some of these rights be even more solidified,” Dunville said. 

On July 7, Mercy Springfield Communities announced its physicians, staff, vendors and volunteers must be vaccinated by Sept. 30 or doctors and staff will face possible termination. On Aug. 23, CoxHealth joined Mercy in announcing its own vaccine mandate.

Nationally, employee vaccination is required to varying degrees by such companies as Facebook, Google, NBCUniversal, Netflix, The New York Times and United Airlines. Regionally, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods has a vaccine mandate, and Walmart requires vaccination for workers at its Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters.

At the time of Cox’s announcement, President and CEO Steve Edwards made the reasoning clear: “This decision is ultimately led by science, which has shown us that vaccinations are the way we can end this pandemic.”

The two hospitals are Springfield’s largest employers – Cox topping the list with 12,253 workers and Mercy with 9,139, according to Springfield Business Journal list research from July.

As the hospitals have committed to vaccines, more employers are doing the same, including some of Springfield’s smallest businesses, perhaps emboldened by the health care titans.

Pickwick & Cherry, self-described as a “tiny, impossible-to-find bakery,” has four employees, sometimes operating at the same time in its small kitchen. Owner Katie Kring requires those who spend time in her kitchen, whether staff or class participants, be vaccinated.

“The thing is, my space is tiny,” Kring said. “In my classes, we’re all making food together and eating together. It’s not something that lends itself to distance and not something that lends itself to continuous masking. So, take those public health interventions off the table and we’re left with ‘vaccinations’ or ‘shut it down.’”

Dunville said as vaccines gain full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, more employers, both large and small, will likely require them. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, one of the three available in the United States, received full FDA approval Aug. 23, just before CoxHealth announced its mandate.

“What I expect to see is that as these vaccines finish going through the process of becoming fully approved and the emergency-use authorization is lifted, we can really expect strength of argument that employers can mandate vaccines is going to get stronger,” he said.

Dunville said employers are within their rights to require vaccination of employees, if that’s what they decide is best for their workplace.

“It’s something that has to be determined on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Health and religious exemptions may apply, and these are considered for employees at both Mercy and CoxHealth.

Mercy says it enacted its vaccine requirement to protect the public.

“Mercy instituted the vaccine requirement because it recognizes that vaccination serves the common good, protects patients who come to us for care and is crucial to safeguarding public health and bringing an end to the pandemic,” Mercy said in a statement to SBJ.

Some 60 medical groups have come out in support of mandatory vaccines for health care workers, including the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association and the American Pharmacists Association, according to Mercy.

“Obviously, it’s already pretty well a settled issue that the health care industry is one that would meet those requirements based on direct threat, risk of substantial harm – that’s pretty much the golden example right now,” Dunville said.

Of course, it’s not only health care companies that have to consider safety of customers and workers.

Kelly Polonus, chief communications and marketing officer for Great Southern Bank, said her institution closely follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety protocols.

“We believe that getting fully vaccinated is the best way for us to take care of each other and to get us to the other side of the pandemic,” she said. “Those who have chosen not to get vaccinated are required to wear a mask, and we recommend that vaccinated associates wear a mask, too.”

Great Southern’s vaccination rate is near 70%.

It is perhaps overstating things to say that Kring required her Pickwick & Cherry bakery staff to be vaccinated, since all of her workers were eager to get the jab.

But for those customers who choose to sign up for a baking or cooking class, proof of vaccination or of COVID-19 infection recovery within the past three months must be provided.

Kring admits that having comparative behemoths like Mercy and CoxHealth require vaccines has given her a measure of comfort for her decision.

“For a while, at least locally, I felt like I was way out on a limb,” she said.

Aaron Schekorra is the public health information administrator for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. He recently began a social media campaign to recognize businesses that have strongly encouraged vaccination for employees. One post includes a photo of The Coffee Ethic, with a quote from owner Michelle Billionis saying, “Our staff was vaccinated as soon as the vaccine became available. We were able to keep our coffee shop open nearly every day during the pandemic because our staff remained healthy!”

Other businesses singled out for their vaccinated workforce include Mother’s Brewing Co., Central Bank of the Ozarks, The Cutting Edge Salon, The Moxie Cinema and World Wide Technology. 

Schekorra said some employers may feel reluctant to require or even discuss vaccines with employees.

“I think the anxiety some employers may have had about discussing what’s very much a public health issue rather than a singularly individual choice does go beyond us as individuals,” Schekorra said. “Some employers are being more proactive, and some to varying degrees don’t discuss it.”

Dunville said employees may be able to claim an exemption from a vaccination mandate due to disability status or religious beliefs. When that happens, employers can pursue other avenues to maintain health, such as requiring employees to be masked and socially distanced, having them work remotely, having them change job functions or requiring them to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.

He recommended that employers leave these discussions to the experts, such as trained human resources staff or outside counsel.

Not every health care provider in Springfield is requiring vaccines, but that doesn’t mean they are being lax about COVID-19 protection.

Gwen Beebe, vice president of operations and business development for Phoenix Home Care and Hospice, which employs 1,235 workers, said, “We have our COVID response team, and we meet regularly to discuss this. What we’re doing is we watch all CDC guidelines and see what they’re recommending, and that’s what we do. We’re following best practices.”

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