Some of Nebraska’s largest employers are waiting to see how President Joe Biden’s sweeping new COVID-19 vaccine requirements unfold before they act.
In an announcement Thursday afternoon, Biden outlined rules stipulating that employers with more than 100 workers either require those workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested for the virus weekly. The requirements could affect as many as 100 million Americans.
Additionally, Biden is signing an executive order to require vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.
Biden’s announcement comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the state and the country. Nebraska recorded 5,649 new cases in the week ending Sept. 2. It was the 11th straight week of rising cases in the state. Hospitalizations and deaths are also on the rise.
Shortly after Biden’s press conference, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement denouncing the president’s new requirements, calling them “a stunning violation of personal freedom and abuse of the federal government’s power.”
“This plan isn’t about public health — this is about government control and taking away personal liberties,” he said. “Americans, not the federal government, are responsible for taking charge of their personal health. It is not the role of the federal government to mandate their choices. Nebraska will stand up to President Biden’s overreach, and we will be working with the Attorney General to explore all our options.”
A Ricketts spokesperson did not respond to a question asking if the state, which employs thousands of Nebraskans, will follow the Biden administration’s requirements.
Nebraska employers and organizations that responded to requests for comment were markedly less combative, saying they will further research the requirements before substantively proceeding.
Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said “imposing costly mandates on private employers is an issue” but added that the state chamber will evaluate the details of the Biden administration’s plan and get engaged as needed.
“The White House proposal deserves all the advantages of a deliberative, balanced policymaking process, even if it’s on a quick timeline,” Slone said.
David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, said in a statement the chamber will work with its almost 3,000 member businesses as they evaluate the administration’s requirements.
“We have, historically, been vigilant about the effects of federal mandates on private enterprise,” Brown said. “Since the beginning of this pandemic we have advised all business owners to follow the guidance of medical experts. Now is no different. Employers, large and small, have a responsibility to the health and well-being of their workforce and customers, and it is our belief that they can, should and will exercise that responsibility as the market demands.”
Melissa Lee, spokeswoman for the University of Nebraska, said university officials will evaluate what the new requirements will mean for state and local government agencies before making any decisions. NU employs about 16,000 people.
On Sept. 3, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced that 81% of faculty and 74% of staff were fully vaccinated. UNL also reported that 69% of students attending in-person classes were fully vaccinated.
Although similar figures were not available from the University of Nebraska at Omaha as of Thursday evening, Jane Meza, executive director of UNO’s Office of Health Security, said there has been “an incredible response” to the vaccines from UNO faculty and staff since they were made available last spring.
Robynn Tysver, spokeswoman for Union Pacific Railroad, said the company is reviewing the legal document around Biden’s executive order. If U.P. is ultimately required to have its 31,000 employees either vaccinated or tested weekly, Tysver said the company will comply.
In the meantime, Union Pacific continues to offer cash prizes and company merchandise to employees who voluntarily attest that they are vaccinated.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.