​​A COVID-19 vaccine administered on Nov. 12 at the Sedgwick County Health Department’s community vaccine clinic at 223 S. Main St. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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Two of the largest private employers in Wichita are urging their workers to get vaccinated or face weekly COVID-19 tests — even as a federal vaccine mandate continues to face legal obstacles and Kansas lawmakers passed expansive mandate exemptions.

Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation say they will comply with a new rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that companies with more than 100 employees require their workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. 

OSHA’s emergency rule incorporates several vaccine mandates President Joe Biden announced earlier this year. 

The two companies employ more than 18,000 people in the Air Capital of the World. Spirit employs about 9,500 people locally, while Textron has about 9,000 area workers, according to the Wichita Business Journal.

“We have asked employees to provide their vaccination status and, as federal contractors, requested employees to begin the process to become fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022,” Sarah White, a senior manager of media relations at Textron, said in an emailed statement.

“The company is actively engaged in communicating and educating employees about the vaccines, and providing resources to help them and their families at this time,” she wrote.

Textron employees can request religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate. 

Forrest Gossett, a spokesperson for Spirit, said the company currently requires mask-wearing on the job, social distancing and weekly COVID-19 testing. 

“We’re not getting into numbers of who’s vaccinated or who’s not, because it’s a fluid, moving situation. Our focus is on complying with the president’s executive order and keeping our team intact,” Gossett said.

Gossett added that the company encourages employees to get vaccinated and has outlined procedures for those seeking medical or religious exemptions. 

Resistance in Kansas to the vaccine mandate 

On Monday, state lawmakers convened a special legislative session to oppose the federal vaccine mandate. Lawmakers passed a bill allowing extensive medical, religious and philosophical exemptions as well as permitting unemployment benefits for those fired for refusing the vaccine. 

Gov. Laura Kelly called the bill “compromise in action” and signed it into law Tuesday.

“I have been clear that I believe it is too late to impose a federal standard,” Kelly said. “States have been leading the fight against COVID-19 for nearly two years.”

“I know there are Kansans who believe this legislation goes too far, and there are others who believe this legislation doesn’t go far enough,” she said. “But I was elected to lead, and leadership means seeking compromise.”

On Nov. 10, Kansas joined a coalition of 10 states suing the federal government to block a vaccine requirement for health care workers. A rule issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services mandated vaccinations for more than 17 million workers in thousands of health care facilities. 

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the additional mandate will further stress health care employees and facilities already facing a severe labor shortage. 

“The administration, in forcing through yet another one-size-fits-all regulation, failed to consider these consequences in crafting this rushed rule, and the courts should strike it down,” he said

On Monday, Schmidt blasted the vaccine mandate for private employers and pledged to “keep fighting in court.”

Kelly also tweeted a statement criticizing the Biden administration’s rules, saying the federal move came too late in the pandemic while states set their own standards for COVID-19 prevention and management. 

“While I appreciate the intention to keep people safe, a goal I share,” she wrote, “I don’t believe this directive is the correct, or most effective, solution for Kansas.” 

On Nov. 12, a federal appeals court blocked the OSHA mandate. On Nov. 23, the Justice Department filed a motion asking another federal court to lift the stay. The 52-page motion argued that the mandate could “save thousands of lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations” and that OSHA has the authority to address “grave dangers in the workplace.”

OSHA estimates 84 million workers will be protected from the spread of COVID-19 under the emergency rule.


A survey of several other Wichita companies about the vaccine mandate

The Wichita Beacon sent a questionnaire to several local unions and private companies with more than 100 employees, asking for compliance plans relevant to the federal mandate.

Some responded to individual questions, while others provided a single statement. Responses may have been edited for clarification. 

The responses below were provided before the appeals court blocked OSHA’s emergency rule. We reached out to the companies and unions after the court ruling for clarification. Only Spirit, Textron, Johnson Controls and Wichita State University responded.

Companies contacted by The Beacon:

The unions contacted: 

Companies and unions that did not respond: 

  • Cargill
  • Bombardier
  • Plumbers and Pipefitters, Union Local 441
  • International Association of Machinists, Aerospace District Lodge 70

Wichita State University (2,500+ employees)

Lainie Mazzullo-Hart, director of news and media relations, responded. She provided the employee estimate.

Does Wichita State currently keep track of the number of employees vaccinated? If not, does WSU plan to with the implementation of the Dept. of Labor’s mandate? 

No response.

Who will be responsible for rolling out vaccinations for WSU’s employees? Who will approve or reject exemption requests?

Exemption requests going to HR (HR.ServiceCenter@wichita.edu). Vaccine cards can be uploaded into a secure portal.

Does WSU plan to follow the vaccine mandate, request exemption, or deny compliance with the ordinance? 

The order DOES apply to the entire WSU workforce. All employees (including part-time, full-time and student employees) will be required to be fully vaccinated by December 8, 2021. The mandatory vaccination obligations apply even to those covered employees who are working remotely (as long as they are working on or in connection with a covered contract).

Are there, or will there be, any consequences for an employee refusing vaccination? 

Compliance with the vaccine requirement is a condition of employment. Employees who are not fully vaccinated or do not receive approval for a medical or religious exemption will be prohibited from engaging in work after December 8, 2021.

Will WSU relax other COVID mitigation policies in light of the mandate?

No. Additionally, absent an exemption, all individuals on campus – employees, students and visitors – regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear masks and physically distance (to the extent required in the order).  Beginning 10/25/2021.

For those whose exemption is accepted, will they be subject to other COVID mitigation strategies, such as regular testing? 

Yes. 


Cox Communications

Mandy Wilbert, senior manager of public affairs, responded. She did not provide an estimate of how many employees are in Wichita. 

By Jan. 31, we are requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated, regardless of location or business unit, except those with approved religious and medical exemptions.


United Food & Commercial Workers, Local 2 (13,000+ members)

Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2, responded. 

Does Union Local 2 keep track of the number of members vaccinated? If not, does Union Local 2 plan to with the implementation of the Dept. of Labor’s mandate?

We know an important percentage of these workers have received the vaccine – above 60%. Unfortunately, neither companies nor local authorities have the obligation to share these numbers and there isn’t a central authority collecting specific data for meatpacking workers. We do appreciate the efforts of Governor Kelly and her team to listen … and respond to our requests back in March when 12,000 vaccines for meatpacking workers were secured in order to prevent new outbreaks, and as a matter of fact, it worked! While multiple rural areas across the state suffered outbreaks, counties with large numbers of these workers remain under control. 

Does Union Local 2 plan to follow the vaccine mandate, request exemption or deny compliance with the ordinance?

First, I need to clarify that Local 2 has a small staff, and thus, the federal mandate doesn’t apply to us. Second, Local 2 strongly encourages all its employees, stewards, and members to get the vaccine, and we have conducted a strong communication campaign having open conversations about the impact of the pandemic on our membership and the importance and benefits of the vaccine.

Our members belong to the meatpacking, food processing and retail industries, and thus, they have been declared essential workers to maintain America’s food supply. They were hit very hard during 2020, especially at the meatpacking plants. Thousands of my members have contracted COVID-19 in the workplace and sadly too many have died. Many still live with the long-term effects of this deadly virus. Our main responsibility is to fight for their health and safety, and we know most of them appreciate every effort we’ve done in response to this pandemic. We also understand this (is) a public health crisis affecting not only the lives of our members and their families, but also the world economy. What some people seem to deny is the fact that we live in a globalized world, with a globalized economy. The shortages, stagnation of other countries’ economies affect ours, and until we don’t get behind this health crisis, the economy won’t return to its normality.

Are there, or will there be, any consequences for an employee refusing vaccination?

99% of our staff has already received the two shots and most of them are in line to receive their boost. We have a bit lower percentage of unvaccinated stewards, and we work with them through different channels to encourage them (to) take the vaccine.

Now, UFCW Local 2 has followed all the CDC guidelines allowing social distancing and enough ventilation in the workplace, and the use of a face mask for whoever isn’t vaccinated. All these measures allow us not to need any more drastic measures.

Will Union Local 2 relax other COVID mitigation policies in light of the mandate?

Let me be clear. All our members, and especially meat packing workers continue to be at risk.  They have always had some of the most dangerous jobs and COVID-19 has only highlighted those dangerous conditions. At Local 2 we believe in science and applaud the successful vaccination … program implemented by the federal and state governments. However, we do not believe vaccines alone are the answer.  Other health and safety measures, such as face masks, effective ventilation systems, sick paid leave, social distancing and on-site testing should be in place too.  Much more must be done to protect these workers and if we are to protect America’s food supply.

For those whose exemption is accepted, will they be subject to other COVID mitigation strategies, such as regular testing?

In addition to the mitigation strategies expressed above, we maintain conversations with each company whose workers we represent, and the need of mitigation measures is a topic of discussion with all companies we deal with.


Koch Industries (3,400+ employees in Kansas, headquartered in Wichita) 

Melissa Scheffler-Hoyle, communications manager, responded. 

We’ve been preparing for various outcomes since the Biden administration’s initial announcement in September. The health, safety, and well-being of our employees is our top priority. We have informed employees that Koch will not mandate vaccinations as a condition of employment, and plans to follow the weekly testing and masking option in the rule as an alternative for employees who cannot or choose not to get vaccinated. We continue to strongly encourage employees who haven’t been vaccinated to do so, as it is the best way to avoid COVID-related serious illness and death.

The Beacon followed up with the communications team on whether Koch currently tracks COVID-19 illnesses or vaccinations among staff. No response was received.


Dillons 

Sheila Regehr, corporate affairs manager, responded. She did not provide an estimate of how many employees are in Wichita.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve worked across our stores, manufacturing sites and distribution centers to support a safe environment to work and shop. The COVID-19 vaccine has played a critical role in supporting those efforts. We are reviewing the White House mandate for companies with more than 100 employees to require their employees to get fully vaccinated by January 4, 2022 or be regularly tested for COVID-19. We will comply with all government regulations and are carefully reviewing the various components of the requirements and learning from government agencies and other experts to determine our approach.

In the meantime, we continue to encourage all associates and customers to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. Associates who receive the … required number of doses are eligible to receive a one-time payment of $100.


Johnson Controls (1,700+ employees in Wichita)

Chaz Bickers, director of public relations and media, responded. He also provided the employee estimate.

We will of course comply with applicable government regulations and we continue to communicate with our employees about the benefits of vaccine protection, per the CDC.

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Lugli is a community watchdog reporter at The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.