ST. PAUL — A panel of Minnesota state senators on Thursday, Oct. 14, criticized the rollout of a policy requiring vaccination against COVID-19 or regular testing to allow state employees to resume work in person.

A joint Senate panel, led by Republican chairs, highlighted cases where state employees said their health privacy rights were violated and they had been subject to discrimination over their decision not to share their vaccination status or undergo workplace testing.

The discussion came as the state continued to track a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, reported predominantly in unvaccinated people. And in some regions, hospitals reported that they'd run out of intensive care unit beds available.

"I don't understand how the unions have not taken a stronger position or that we don't recognize that we now have a government-sponsored harassment of great employees," Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said.

The examples of those who refused the new policy represent a small fraction of the pool of employees who became subject to the new rule last month. The vast majority of the state's more than 26,000 in-person workers, including University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University system professors and staff, agreed to the terms that took effect starting Sept. 8, Minnesota Management and Budget Deputy Commissioner Kristin Batson said.

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Seventy-four employees were moved to "no-pay" status after they refused to submit information about their vaccination status and opted not to undergo regular testing through their agency, according to MMB data. No employees have been terminated over their refusal to comply with the requirement.

Employees that refused the conditions had the option to work remotely where possible or enter a hearing with the agency to address unique circumstances around their refusal. The state reported that 70 employees opted to undergo testing outside the state's offerings.

Agency heads tasked with leading the policy change said they were working through an unprecedented situation and left the door open to testing vaccinated workers and allowing for additional antibody testing in the future. But they said the efforts to require vaccination or testing were the most efficient at preventing the possible risk of infection.

"The overriding importance right now, and I hear it on a daily basis, is how do we help people avoid getting infected and how do we do anything that we can to help balance the cost, balance the timeliness so that we can avoid more people in the hospital?" MMB Commissioner Jim Schowalter told the committee. "We're trying to do what we can to make sure our workplaces are safe or at least safer given the facts."

AFSCME Council 5, which represents private and public sector workers, opposed the requirement that workers prove vaccination or undergo regular testing. The union also urged the state not to terminate unvaccinated workers without giving them an adequate testing option.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com