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Are vaccine mandates legal? Who can enforce them and who can't?

"We're fielding calls every day,” employment and labor attorney Grant Collins says.

MINNEAPOLIS — More companies and schools are now requiring the COVID vaccine.

This week Ramsey County and Hennepin Healthcare announced they’re both moving forward with vaccine mandates for employees.

The University of Minnesota also recently announced plans to require vaccines, as soon as the vaccines are officially approved by the FDA.

The U.S. military is also requiring them.

Now that more companies, schools, and governmental entities are pursuing vaccine mandates, many people are wondering whether these mandates are even legal.

"Yeah, we're fielding calls every day,” employment and labor attorney Grant Collins says.

Collins works at the law firm Felhaber Larson in downtown Minneapolis.

He is also the Vice President of the Minnesota Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Section.

His specialty is employment law, which lately has included a lot of questions about vaccine mandates.

“Before COVID, I would say vaccine requirements were less than 5% of my workload,” Collins says.

“Now it’s probably almost 50% to 60%.”

He says the most common question he receives from employers is whether a vaccine mandate is legal.

He also receives a lot of questions from employers who don’t have a vaccine mandate themselves, but have a strong working relationship with another company or client who do have a mandate in effect.

“It brings up a lot of questions, because the employer isn’t requiring the vaccine, but a client or another company they do business with is requiring the vaccine,” Collins says.

“I normally tell employers that the best solution in those cases is to see if you can work around that. If they have an employee who doesn’t want to get vaccinated, maybe they can assign that client or customer to another employee who is vaccinated.”

Vaccine laws aren’t exactly new.

Collins says he and his colleagues have been dealing with cases involving the flu vaccine for nearly a decade.

And cases involving other vaccines, like the smallpox vaccine, have been debated for more than a hundred years.

"The law says that an employer can establish conditions of employment, and one of those conditions is to get a COVID vaccine, to get a flu vaccine or to get an MMR vaccine,” Collins says.

But there are exceptions.

If an employee has a certain medical condition, or firmly held religious beliefs, Collins says the employer must make accommodations to fit that employee's needs.

And when it comes to colleges and universities...

"The university couldn't say you're not allowed to enroll in our university.”

But Collins says universities can get around this by mandating the vaccine for everyone who comes onto their campus, or they could issue a vaccine mandate and offer an alternative for non-vaccinated students...such as requiring them to wear masks at all times.

"That allows for some safety for the folks who come on campus or come on site but still allows folks to participate if they wish to remain unvaccinated,” Collins says.

And when it comes to K-12 schools, Collins says Minnesota does give school districts the right to require some vaccines, but the flu vaccine and COVID vaccine are not on that list.

"Those laws would need to be updated to specify that folks needed to have that for COVID."

And lastly, Collins says private businesses can legally require proof of vaccination for every customer who walks through their door.

"They're well within their rights to do that."

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