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'A survival story': Benike Construction opts for vaccine mandate to keep business running

While federal vaccine mandates are under legal question, Benike Construction already opted for required vaccinations among their staff in order to fit clients' restrictions. It lost some veteran employees as a result.

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Jordan Weyhrauch, with Benike Construction, works on demolishing an interior wall at the construction site for the Chatfield Center for the Arts remodeling project Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Chatfield. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist
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By many standards, Benike Construction has emerged from the pandemic thriving.

The business continued operations on key projects, adapted sites to be safe for employees and achieved a 99% vaccination rate among staff by Nov. 1.

But for Aaron and Mike Benike, there have been few victory laps.

ALSO READ: Mayo Clinic to warn unvaccinated employees instead of placing them leave In October, Mayo Clinic pledged to place any of its 73,000 employees who declined to be vaccinated against COVID-19 on unpaid leave in December with the intention of terminating them in January. That recently changed to notifying unvaccinated employees with a warning letter on Dec. 3 instead of putting them on leave. However, if nonexempt workers do not receive at least one vaccination shot by Jan. 3, Mayo Clinic will still end their employment.
“It’s not in any way a success story,” said Mike. “It’s just…”

“A survival story,” said Aaron, finishing his cousin's sentence.

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The cousins recounted a year consumed with tracking COVID-19 cases, managing a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated workers on job sites, and eventually letting some company veterans go because of their refusal to get the vaccine.

Benike Construction is one of 6,000 Minnesota businesses with more than 100 employees, according to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. This would make it subject to a vaccine mandate from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The rule, announced Nov. 5, is embroiled in legal battles. If approved, it would take effect on Jan. 4.

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Kyle Semones, with Benike Construction, works on demolishing an interior wall at the construction site for the Chatfield Center for the Arts remodeling project Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Chatfield. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

While firms that employ more than 100 people make up just 6% of all businesses in the state, these businesses have a massive footprint, employing 68% of Minnesota workers, according to the state chamber of commerce.

There are many questions for businesses that are preparing for a potential mandate, including who will pay for the cost of testing for unvaccinated employees, what legal protections companies may have against litigious ex-employees, and which parts of the workforce a firm should include in its total headcount.

“A lot of uncomfortable conversations”

As the Benike team questioned whether to implement a vaccine mandate among its staff, they had conversations around staff health, how job sites could function with unvaccinated workers, and what their clients required.

Eventually, the latter factor pushed the firm to implement a Nov. 1 vaccination deadline. If staff didn’t get the jab by that time, and did not have an accepted religious or medical exemption, they were let go.

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Jordan Weyhrauch, with Benike Construction, works on demolishing an interior wall at the construction site for the Chatfield Center for the Arts remodeling project Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Chatfield. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

“A lot of uncomfortable conversations,” said Aaron. “We did lose some team members. Some good people.”

Some of them had been with the company for two decades, and went on to work for other firms that didn’t require vaccinations.

While the Benikes wouldn’t reveal how many employees they’d lost, they said they’d lost fewer than 20 people from their 220-person staff.

The Benikes tried to retain as many of their people as possible, engaging in individual, sit-down conversations with unvaccinated members. They provided paid time for employees to get vaccinated and offered perks for those who did it on their own time.

They highlighted how unvaccinated team members affected the productivity of the entire team. If one unvaccinated person tested positive on a site, other unvaccinated people would be forced to leave for the day and quarantine.

“The job site close contact, everybody who's not vaccinated has to go home, is a deal breaker,” said Aaron.

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There were awkward conversations with vaccinated employees, too, before the Benikes made vaccinations mandatory. As vaccinated workers observed that some unvaccinated people weren’t wearing masks, they were unsure of how to start conversations about complying with the rules. The mandate alleviated some of those tense situations.

Adapting business practices

The nature of construction work affords different pros and cons when it comes to COVID-19 protocols. While staff are sometimes able to work on outdoor sites, there are often work areas where they have to be in close quarters or confined spaces alongside their clients.

This is why businesses should have the flexibility to decide what restrictions they should implement for different circumstances, said Vicki Stute, the vice president of businesses and programming at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

“I've always believed that businesses should have the fortitude and the autonomy to make those decisions for themselves,” said Stute.

Stute has concerns about a potential mandate, particularly in the midst of a worker shortage. Minnesota’s unemployment rate doubled from 2019 to 2020. She said she's anecdotally observed employees leaving larger companies for ones that don't have a vaccine rule. The Benikes echoed this observation.

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The chart shows the increase in unemployment along with the reduction in labor participation in Minnesota over the last five years. Forum Communications graphic

“Being able to educate employees in terms of what the options may be moving forward, and really trying to understand where their employees are, at this point in time, so that they can understand what might happen after Jan. 4, will be an important consideration for employers,” said Stute.

The OSHA ruling would mandate the covered businesses to comply by Jan. 4, or be hit with fines. The guidance wouldn’t limit employers to requiring vaccinations across the board. Unvaccinated employees could undergo weekly testing and mask up, but for businesses like Benike Construction, there were still too many logistical hurdles to implement these alternatives. In a webinar put on by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, employers voiced concerns that they hadn't been able to find test vendors that could keep up with their weekly testing needs.

A late-November survey of about 500 businesses found that more than half planned to require vaccinations regardless of the legal decisions regarding the OSHA rule. The Biden administration’s rule immediately faced about three dozen legal challenges in 12 circuit courts. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati, Ohio, won a lottery to hear the case.

While businesses across the United States await the ruling, the Benike cousins look forward to a future where their days aren’t bogged down having conversations about public health or quarantine statuses.

“It’d be nice to be able to focus on construction again,” said Mike.

Nora Eckert has previously worked with NPR, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and undergraduate degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. She’s reported on national investigations into jail suicides, how climate change disproportionately affects the urban poor, the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes and the race for artificial blood. She joined the Post Bulletin team in January 2021 as their investigative reporter.
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