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At the Capitol, Democrats require employee COVID-19 vaccine or test, Republicans await court guidance

Ahead of the 2022 legislative session, leaders in the divided Statehouse are setting out distinct plans for managing COVID-19 spread.

Minnesota House - Hortman
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, gaveled the Minnesota House of Representatives in for a special legislative session on Monday, June 14, 2021. <br/>
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Democratic leaders at the Capitol this week said they were preparing to tighten COVID-19 restrictions for employees and interns amid the spread of the omicron variant.

Administrators in the Republican-led Senate, meanwhile, said they'd wait for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court to firm up their course.

The announcements came after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set in place emergency rules requiring shots or regular tests for employers with 100 workers or more. The high court is weighing the rule, along with another that mandates vaccinations for workers at facilities that pull in Medicare and Medicaid funds.

Assuming the court allows the policy to stand, DFL House leaders said employees and interns would need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination by Feb. 9 or document a negative COVID-19 test on a weekly basis. Those working remotely wouldn't have to show proof of their immunization or tests.

Lawmakers wouldn't be subject to the rule but they would be required to don face masks while working in person at the Capitol complex.

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If House employees working remotely wanted to attend in-person proceedings, they would have to take a test and show a negative result seven days before they intended to work at the Capitol. Medical and religious exemptions would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"This standard is a floor and not a ceiling for COVID-related safety protocols an employer may put into place," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said in a letter to House members and staff on Monday. "The House has an obligation to comply with OSHA standards or face stiff penalties for noncompliance."

Employees and interns who tested positive for COVID-19 or were diagnosed by a doctor would not have to take a test for 90 days after a test or diagnosis, Hortman said.

Employees would be offered paid leave time to get their vaccinations, under the guidance, and booster shots would not be required to be considered fully vaccinated. Those who failed to provide documentation of vaccination or testing could face disciplinary actions.

Secretary of the Senate Cal Ludeman in a letter to lawmakers and staff on Tuesday said Senate administrators were closely monitoring developments around federal and state rules for workers. And they planned to draft workplace guidance based on the court's decision.

"This ruling will have a direct impact on MNOSHA’s implementation of its (emergency temporary standard)," Ludeman said. "I want to emphasize that compliance must and will be accomplished in a manner that preserves and protects confidential personal information."

Both chambers were preparing to offer lawmakers an option to participate in hearings or floor sessions remotely again in 2022, rather than in person. In 2021, House members were able to deliver floor speeches from home via Zoom or telephone, while senators had the option to call in to vote but could not speak on the floor unless they were there in person.

Democrats in the Senate attempted to require face masks in that chamber due to concerns about COVID-19 but Republicans said they should remain optional.

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The House and Senate Rules Committees could vote to further tighten COVID-19 mitigation measures in the Legislature later this month. The legislative session is set to start on Jan. 31.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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