ST. PAUL — Minnesota Management and Budget leaders along with Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, Oct. 6, defended a state requirement that employees show proof of their vaccination against COVID-19 or take a weekly test to continue working in person.
The comments came as the state Senate Committee on Human Services Reform Finance and Policy probed the number of state employees who've submitted proof of vaccination or consented to regular testing. And a pair of state employees raised frustrations about being placed on unpaid leave or made uncomfortable after they refused to provide proof of vaccination and raised questions about the state's testing requirements.
The vast majority of the state's more than 26,000 in-person workers, including University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University system professors and staff, agreed to the terms that took effect starting Sept. 8, according to Minnesota Management and Budget Deputy Commissioner Kristin Batson. But 523 had not yet provided evidence of vaccination or consent to undergo testing.
Some of those employees testified that the state's protocols for testing were unclear and they felt their privacy was infringed by supervisors when they were asked about their vaccination status or were asked to test in front of colleagues.
“We’ve rolled out a brand new program and there are some real kinks in there and according to the MMB there are 500 or so people that haven’t consented,” Committee Chair Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said during the hearing. "At the end of this, I hope we can get back to treating state employees with the worth they have."
AFSCME Council 5, which represents private and public sector workers, opposed the mandate and emphasized the importance of having a testing program in place. The union also urged the state not to terminate unvaccinated workers without giving them an adequate testing option.
Batson, with MMB, said the state had never rolled out a vaccination and testing program for its employees before and faced challenges in making tests available around the state and in diverse work settings. And she said the state would aim to improve its protocols to ensure privacy of workers.
Requiring vaccinations or regular testing was the "best way to ensure that our employees and the people we serve remain safe in the workplace,” Batson said.
And Walz told reporters that while there were concerns among lawmakers, union officials and workers, the protocols were especially important as the state faces a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, especially among unvaccinated people.
"I’m sure, like in anything, there are some folks frustrated or whatever," Walz told reporters. "This is about protecting folks."