Short on help, Hennepin Co. lifts vaccine mandate for volunteers

The number of volunteers Hennepin County depends on to help out on a range of services from libraries to the sheriff’s department plummeted from 4,100 to 1,600 during the pandemic. The total ticked back up to 2,900 residents willing to give of their time last year, but it probably didn’t help that the county implemented a mandate requiring volunteers to be vaccinated.

The state’s most populous county still enforces a vaccine mandate for all employees. But recently officials quietly lifted the requirement for volunteers, according to the Star Tribune.

As the pandemic has waned, county officials have evaluated case data and weighed changes to policies such as mask wearing and access to buildings, said Michael Rossman, the county’s chief human resources officer. Such was the case with the vaccination of county volunteers.

Some volunteer work is done remotely or involves little contact with employees, Rossman said. Throw in volunteerism that is done outdoors in the summer, and lifting the vaccination requirement became the right thing to do to keep the volunteer program vibrant, he said.

“We know some people might consider this a little controversial, but so were other policy changes we have made during the pandemic,” he said. “The county board is in favor of this move.”

It might be considered controversial to lift the mandate in some quarters of the country bureaucracy. But it was long overdue in the view of some volunteers ready to return to duty, if and when officials ditched the controversial requirement.

This policy upset Cindy, a mother whose 15-year-old daughter couldn’t volunteer at the library because she wasn’t vaccinated. Cindy, who didn’t want her last name used because she doesn’t want pushback for her anti-vaccination stance, didn’t think her daughter should have had to file for an exemption.

Cindy raised her concerns with county officials, saying that federal legislation doesn’t require a specific reason why a person would seek a vaccine exemption. Two weeks ago, she was told the county no longer required its volunteers to be vaccinated.

“A victory!” Cindy wrote in an e-mail. “It gives me hope that Hennepin County backed down on this mandate. But where does it end?”

It’s anybody’s guess why officials continue to insist county employees be vaccinated but let the volunteers who toil next to them off the hook. But lifting the vaccine mandate clears the way for more of the volunteers who provide much-needed assistance to pick up where they left off pre-pandemic.

Maintaining a robust volunteer program was difficult during the pandemic, but he said there wasn’t any lack of interest. A 2021 survey of library volunteers said that 92% wanted to continue doing the work.

Now, the volunteer program is slowly ramping back up, Rossman said. The county was able to adapt to some degree during the pandemic with remote work, which helped knock down barriers for volunteers with transportation problems and other issues, he said.

Rossman is pleased the vaccination policy for volunteers has been dropped — at least for now.