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Willmar City Council allows staff to follow state rules on worker vaccination requirements

The Willmar City Council has given the city staff permission to implement a state policy requiring COVID-19 vaccines or testing for employees. However, permission was given only after Mayor Marv Calvin broke a tie. The state policy applies to employers with at least 100 employees.

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A Willmar Public Works employee sprays a fog-like chemical to keep the mosquitoes under control at Robbins Island Park in Willmar in this 2019 file photo. The City Council voted Monday to authorize city staff to develop a city policy to comply with the state requirement that all city employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. Erica Dischino / Tribune file photo
Erica Dischino

WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council voted narrowly Monday to authorize the city staff to develop and implement policies as needed to comply with a state requirement that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.

City Administrator Leslie Valiant and Human Resources Director LuAnn Sietsema presented a vaccination policy for approval at Monday’s council meeting. They also asked for approval to make changes to the policy as more guidance is issued by the state.

The Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to enforce the policy requiring employees to vaccinate or submit to weekly testing beginning Jan. 10. The policy will apply to employers with at least 100 employees.

Valiant said the state requires the city to have its own policy in place. The city policy was written following recommendations from the League of Minnesota Cities.

Council members balked at the request to vote to approve the policy, after many said they were personally opposed.

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The policy requires employees to be fully vaccinated unless they do not work in the presence of other people, are working from home or only work outdoors.

Employees will be required to provide proof of vaccination by Jan. 10. They may seek medical or religious exemptions, but employees who are not fully vaccinated will be required to wear face masks and be tested for COVID-19 at least once a week.

The policy is similar to a federal OSHA policy published last fall.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Friday on two federal vaccine requirements, one for workplaces with more than 100 employees and one for health care providers who receive federal funding through Medicare or Medicaid.

During the discussion, council members expressed strong opposition to the state’s requirement.

Councilor Andrew Plowman began his remarks by saying he is not anti-vaccine. He said he believes that COVID-19 is a real threat, that people can become ill and die from it. However, he called the vaccine mandate an “egregious federal overreach.”

Plowman said he considered a vote on the policy “a hill to die on.”

Councilor Vicki Davis said, “I can’t in good conscience vote for this ... I don’t agree with this.”

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Councilor Audrey Nelsen asked why the council needed to vote on the policy and what would happen if it wasn’t approved.

The city follows many other Minnesota OSHA policies without council action, said Mayor Marv Calvin. He asked, “Do we have to approve it?”

City Attorney Robert Scott told the council the mandate requires the city to develop and implement the vaccination and testing program.

Even if the council did not approve the policy, Scott said, the city staff would still need to implement it. “You want to allow them to do what they need to do,” he said.

The state can implement policies governing its political subdivisions, including cities, he said, and the city could face penalties if it doesn’t comply.

Scott suggested the council could pass a motion authorizing Valiant and Sietsema to implement the policy and make changes as recommended by the state to ensure the city is in compliance with state requirements.

The vote to authorize the staff to implement the state policy was a tie — with Nelsen, Justin Ask, Julie Asmus and Rick Fagerlie voting in favor and Plowman voting against. Davis, Michael O’Brien and Tom Butterfield abstained, but abstentions are counted as "no" votes.

Calvin voted for the motion to break the tie. He had opened the discussion by saying he was opposed to the mandate.

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In other business, the council:

  • Voted to move the start time for its regular meetings from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Approved the job description and recruitment for a rental housing inspector. Council members called the need for an inspector a quality of life issue for the city.
  • Terminated an agreement with Bolton & Menk for work related to a state grant for downtown improvement. The agreement was for work that is no longer planned.
  • Voted against extending a lease for six more weeks for the indoor shooting range at the City Auditorium, citing concerns for employee safety because of contamination from lead ammunition.
  • Approved a new fee schedule for services, permits, licenses and rentals of city facilities for 2022.
  • Approved a 2022 pay scale for part-time employees.
  • Approved intergovernmental transfer payments from city-owned Carris Health facilities to the city.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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