New federal COVID-19 vaccine rules pose questions for Montana businesses

Posted at 12:00 PM, Nov 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-05 14:00:56-04

The Biden Administration on Thursday laid out new COVID-19 vaccine rules that could impact thousands of Montana employers and their employees.

The first from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated all federal employees, federal contractors and healthcare workers at facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid have until Jan. 4 to be fully vaccinated.

The second — through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — states people who work at businesses with more than 100 employees must also meet that deadline or test weekly and wear a mask at work.

Businesses could face thousands of dollars in fines, per employee, per violation. Additionally, federal workers and contractors who don’t get the shot will face discipline and could even lose their jobs.

At RiverStone Health in Billings, County Health Officer John Felton said employers — especially in Montana — are in a hard spot because state law conflicts with the federal rule. Montana House Bill 702 states a vaccine mandate is illegal discrimination.

“In our state, we've got additional confusion because the question is going to be, does the state law trump the federal rule, or does the federal rule trump the state law?” said Felton. “And in the timeline that we have, it’s going to be extremely difficult. We're going to rely on courts to help us figure this out.”

Felton says the health department is torn like other employers. He and his team have 30 days to come up with procedures to implement the new federal rules, but RiverStone follows state law.

“The choice that's been put in front of organizations today, as these rules roll out, is, do we choose to violate the state law and actively discriminate,” said Felton, “or do we choose to violate the federal rules, which in the case of RiverStone health as an example, would be about… close to half of our annual revenue if we lose federal funding. So which of those choices do you take?”

The 30-day deadline begins Friday, so Felton says his team will begin to write up compliance procedures immediately. “It turns out that the timelines are so short, that we cannot afford to wait and start when the court can make a decision.”