State’s largest public employee union now opposes Gov. Walz’s vaccine mandate

Most of the media coverage of the resistance to Gov. Tim Walz’s controversial mandate for thousands of state employees to be vaccinated or tested in order to keep their jobs focuses on Republicans. Yet arguably the most politically significant pushback against the requirement as a condition of employment by the State of Minnesota comes from within one of the DFL’s most powerful constituencies.

To little fanfare, the state’s biggest public employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, issued a blunt repudiation of Walz’s order in an Oct. 5 letter.

AFSCME Council 5 does not support a vaccine mandate. Though we understand the importance of achieving as high a vaccination rate as possible, and we encourage all of our members to seek advice from their medical provider regarding receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine, we understand some people have personal, medical or religious reasons which factor into their individual decision and their decisions should be respected.

After initially waffling on Walz’s directive, AFSCME left no wiggle room on where it stands on state government forcing employees to either get the vaccine or disclose their vaccination status.

We encourage all our members to consult with their medical provider and consider the benefits of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, but we recognize the decision is ultimately an individual one; the indignity of losing employment and the ability to provide for oneself and family should not be used to entice vaccine compliance without a testing alternative.

Although about 75 percent of the 26,000 or so state workers currently subject to the mandate have complied, some employees have charged their supervisors with coercion and violation of their privacy in testimony at state Senate hearings and in media outlets like Forum Communications.

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.”

Several dozen state employees who feel so strongly about being forced to be vaccinated or tested have been placed on unpaid leave. Mandi Helmin, a Department of Human Services employee, lost nine days of pay because of her stand on the issue.

“Unvaccinated have to make sure they come in on a certain day and go into an office in front of their supervisor walk by their peers and take a test,” Helmin told lawmakers. “That is a really messy way to put people on the line and our privacy not be protected.”

Some workers will likely lose their jobs rather than violate their principles against forced vaccination or testing, according to a KSTP-TV report.

One state employee who testified said many state workers are considering leaving their jobs because of the policies.

“I have co-workers tell me they’re having trouble sleeping,” testified Melissa Shultz, a Minnesota Department of Transportation worker. “That they’re having anxiety attacks. I have them say they’re struggling reoccurrences of PTSD that are all directly related to these policies and concerns about where it’s headed from here.”

That’s where AFSCME draws the line, joining many Republican legislators in fighting for state employees’ right to choose for themselves.

Whether we understand or agree with their decision is irrelevant; we should not risk dangerous workplaces due to staffing shortages in our pursuit of safety from COVID, not when it is possible to adopt policies which maintain both individual choice and safe staffing levels, while also mitigating the risk of spreading the virus, through the use of free and readily available testing.