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What the federal vaccine mandate means for Arkansas

There's already been pushback from local employers about President Biden's mandate. One Arkansas sheriff described it as "tyranny."

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — There's been a lot of questions and pushback following President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate announcement last week.

Several Arkansas Sheriff's Departments over the weekend said they would never require their employees to be vaccinated. 

While cases continue to climb and vaccine rates aren't where leaders and health professionals want them to be, President Biden announced a vaccine mandate Thursday, Sept. 9. 

It will require private employers with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccines or offer weekly testing. 

Local lawyer and counsel with Mitchell Williams Law Firm in Little Rock, Amanda Orcutt, said Biden is doing this through the federal agency in charge of workplace safety, OSHA.

"OSHA has rule-making power to protect the health and safety of workers, even in the private sector, so legally OSHA does have rule-making authority," she said.

According to Orcutt, OSHA has a power called "emergency temporary standard" or ETS.

They can issue these to protect workers from "grave danger."

"President Biden has decided that COVID-19 falls into that 'grave danger' category and this vaccine is the way to address it," she said. 

Before these rules come down, Orcutt said there are a lot employers can and should do in the meantime.

First, figure out how you'll track employees' vaccination statuses. 

Second, decide whether or not to allow employees to choose the testing opt-out and figure out how you'll compensate them for that time. 

Third, talk through protocols for employees who have valid medical or religious exemptions. 

Last, decide what you'll do when there's pushback.

Cleburne County Sheriff Chris Brown described the requirement as "tyranny."

"I think the atrocity here isn't the vaccine, I don't even think it's people who want to encourage others to get it, I think the atrocity here is that our choice is being taken away," he said.

Brown was one of the many Arkansas sheriffs who posted a letter over the weekend that said he will not mandate the vaccine for his employees.

"I wanted to reassure my folks like 'hey, your ability to choose, your right as an American citizen to choose what is the best health option for you is secure, as long as I'm here,'" he said.

Orcutt said employers could face penalties up to $14,000 per violation if the mandate isn't followed.

"What is a violation? Is that one employee who doesn't get vaccinated? Is it every time that employee shows up, so is it every day? Those are all things that we are going to have to wait and see how those questions are answered," she said.

Orcutt said they're not sure when the full details of the mandate will come down. It could be within the next 30 to 60 days.