Louisiana will increase COVID-19 restrictions on state workers, but questions remain

State government has little idea of how many of its employees have been vaccinated

By: - August 24, 2021 8:17 am
Gov. John Bel Edwards

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

A lot remains up in the air about Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to require thousands of state workers to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to regular, mandatory testing.

It’s not clear when those additional requirements for unvaccinated state employees will go into effect or how many people they will impact. Employees won’t have to pay for their own testing, but the state also hasn’t decided how frequent the required state screening will be.  

The Edwards administration also has little idea of how many state workers are already vaccinated — and the decision may bring a legal challenge from affected employees.  

Still, Louisiana’s move toward mandatory testing for its own unvaccinated employees is significant. State government is one of the largest employers in Louisiana — and few other large employers in the state have announced similar restrictions. 

Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any state in the country — hovering around 40 percent — and Edwards has been desperate to raise its vaccinated numbers.

But the governor doesn’t have direct control over all state workers, which will limit the impact his new restrictions have.

Some state agencies are headed up by other elected officials, including Attorney General Jeff Landry and the Louisiana Legislature, who have been resistant to vaccine and masking restrictions. Employees who work for elected officials other than the governor might not be subjected to mandatory testing if they go unvaccinated. 

State government agencies — including those under the governor’s control — also don’t have a good handle on how many of their employees have already received the vaccine. 

“We are unaware of any requirement that state agencies track vaccination status of employees,” said Jenny Creighton, a spokeswoman with Louisiana State Civil Service, last week. “We are also unaware of any entity responsible for keeping track of the vaccination rate of state employees.” 

“Vaccinations are not mandatory for employees and vaccination status is not being officially tracked at this time,” said Nick Manale, a spokesperson for the Louisiana State Police, of his agency earlier this month.

The Louisiana National Guard also hasn’t been tracking vaccine rates among its members. Even guardsmen who work at mass COVID-19 vaccine and testing sites in Louisiana are not required to be inoculated, according to Noel Collins, a spokeswoman for the agency.

That could change quickly though. The National Guard is subjected to vaccine restrictions put in place not just by the governor, but also the U.S. Department of Defense. The Defense Department has indicated a vaccine mandate for military members is imminent

The few state agencies that are tracking employee vaccination status are doing so through self-reporting.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections has said about 55 percent of correctional officers who work in prisons are vaccinated, but that figure is based on information volunteered from the workers. The prison system hasn’t been requiring employees to disclose their vaccination status.

The vast majority of state workers haven’t been subjected to routine COVID-19 testing at their offices. Most state agencies have only been testing employees when an outbreak has occurred within the department.

Health experts said that the most effective way to manage the spread of COVID-19 would be for the state government and other employers to regularly test both vaccinated and unvaccinated workers. But testing unvaccinated workers is a better solution than doing no testing at all. 

“More frequent testing has the higher likelihood of catching more cases,” said Rebecca Christofferson, an assistant professor and epidemiologist at LSU. “But at this point, with delta and our hospital systems so stressed, every single potential catch-and-interruption is a win.”

The Edwards administration is also clearly hoping that more state employees will choose to get a vaccination to avoid the mandatory testing, though health experts question how effective that strategy is for increasing vaccine uptake. Mandatory testing won’t necessarily lead to higher vaccination rates, they said. 

“I don’t think [mandatory testing] is as powerful an incentive as some might think it is,” said Susan Hassig, an associate professor in Tulane University’s epidemiology department. 

There could be avenues for unvaccinated state workers to challenge mandatory COVID-19 testing as well. Unlike with students in K-12 schools and universities, there are no state laws or civil service rules addressing the vaccination of state workers, which means it is somewhat uncharted legal territory.

Public employers also have less latitude than private employers when it comes to worker mandates. Public employees can challenge their workforce mandates under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — which entitles citizens to due process from the government.

“Government employees can make a constitutional claim that private employees can’t,” said William Corbett, an LSU law professor. A vaccine or testing mandate “is going to raise constitutional issues,” he said. 

But Corbett said the legal challenges won’t necessarily be successful. Students at Indiana University tried to make a constitutional challenge to that school’s vaccine mandate using the 14th Amendment earlier this year — and it has been shot down by a federal court.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.