By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
Large businesses won’t have to mandate their employees be vaccinated following a Supreme Court decision this week — a decision that, local business leaders say, is the latest change in a COVID-19 landscape that has been short on one quality important to businesses:
In a somewhat split outcome this week, the Supreme Court set aside President Joe Biden’s mandate that large employers require employees to be vaccinated, while also giving a green light to the Biden administration’s plan to go ahead with a vaccine mandate for some health care workers.
The decision comes after nearly two years of Santa Clarita business leaders slogging their way through an ever-changing battlefield economy, a constantly mutating virus and shifting demands of public health officials.
Holly Schroeder, president and CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corp., says local business leaders have had to pick their battles and find a way to win.
“Businesses have been working through the proposed mandates, balancing the interests of their employees and their business needs for months and months now. So, I don’t know that it really changes at lot.”
“Businesses have figured out their own strategy and what works for them as best they can,” she said Friday. “There’s been this uncertainty hanging over this mandate for a while, so they’ve had to get on with it and work through it themselves.”
Would the battle be easier for local businesses if they could point to a vaccine mandate, telling their workers: “Hey, my hands are tied but the law is the law?”
“There’s definitely an element of truth, in that,” says Schroeder. “It takes some of the debate out of the workplace. And that can, in circumstances, be helpful.”
The challenge, Schroeder says, is that mandates tend to be very high-level and very simply framed. “The reality is that there are many more practical issues that happen when you get to doing something on the ground.”
“You have limited the options for how a company is able to deal with the realities that happen in practice,” she said. “So, it sort of cuts both ways and, because there has been so much uncertainty about the mandate, companies have worked through them and generally found a balance that fits their business setting.”
Constantly changing rules
Ivan Volschenk, president and CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce, says local businesses are constantly trying to keep pace with ever-changing rules.
“The SCV Chamber has been working to actively ensure our businesses have the resources they need to safely operate,” he said Thursday when the court decision was announced.
“The constantly changing rules and regulations have been detrimental to businesses and it’s a struggle to keep up with all of the health officer orders, on top of just running your business with the numerous other challenges the pandemic have caused.”
What Volschenk and the chamber want is consistency.
“What we have been advocating for is consistency and common-sense guidance to keep employees and customers as safe as possible and to keep our businesses open,” he said. “No matter your opinion on vaccines, in this tight labor market we need a strong and healthy work force to ensure our businesses can operate to their full potential.”
SCV health care
The Supreme Court’s message to businesses Thursday was a different one for many health care providers.
Does it affect health care workers at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital?
“The California Department of Public Health put a vaccine mandate for health care workers in place some time ago,” said hospital spokesman Patrick Moody. “And, we operate under the state Department of Public Health, so the (Supreme Court) decision really had no practical impact on us.”
For the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Thursday’s decision was the right one.
The OSHA statement posted online reads: “The Supreme Court correctly concluded that the federal administrative state has no authority to treat unvaccinated employees like workplace hazards and to compel employers to carry out the government’s unlawful national vaccine mandate.”
Mandate or no mandate, vaccine or no vaccine, dealing with the pandemic at work day after day, month after month, for nearly two years continues to take a toll.
“Obviously, dealing with all the complexities and disruptions has been a full-time job for everybody,” Schroeder says. “It is absolutely front and center.”
“Companies have been dealing with the realities of somebody in their workforce who perhaps gets exposed or gets sick,” she said. “They deal with a person in their workforce who is caring for somebody who is sick or has a child who can’t go to school because they’ve been sick or exposed. They deal with people who are worried about exposure, not wanting to come to work and either want to work remotely or want to resign and we’ve all heard about the great resignation.”
“The ripple effects of the pandemic and all elements of how we’ve been responding to the pandemic are wide and vast and it requires constant attention and vigilance from all our businesses and most of them work in partnership with their employees on figuring out the best way to move forward.”
That was especially true early on in the pandemic when local captains of industry “knew so little,” Schroeder says, and at a time when “the orders from the public health departments were changing so rapidly.”
The orders, like most mandates and orders, she says, were “a lot of times pretty high-level.”
Workplace issues had to be addressed day-to-day in real time.
“We definitely talked to a lot of our business leaders and it was a collaborative effort with their employees — what should we do here? What do we do in this situation? Where do see a risk we haven’t maybe identified yet and how do we address it?”
“You’re bringing more brains to the table and, most likely, to figure out better solutions,” she says.
Tunnel light ahead
“Certainly, everybody is hoping that (we see) the drop-off seen in South Africa, and now appears to be happening in the U.K. and possibly East Coast, New York and Boston,” Schroeder says. “Everybody has their fingers crossed and that (trend) is hopefully in the near future in L.A. County and Santa Clarita Valley.”
“The world has fundamentally changed, she says. “It’s not like we go back to the way things were in (2019) but I think having it hopefully recede so that it’s not always the top-of-mind topic would really be a welcome change that everybody’s hoping for.”