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Arizona universities to require COVID-19 vaccination for employees, including student workers

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 10/16/2021 Alison Steinbach, Arizona Republic

Arizona’s three state universities will require all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to comply with new federal requirements, university officials announced on Friday.

The deadline for the universities' more than 52,000 employees to submit proof of vaccination or receive an accommodation is Dec. 8.

The Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body for the three state universities, said the schools are complying with requirements that institutions that contract with the federal government follow federal guidelines.

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“The universities have hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts, funding critical research, employment and educational efforts. We respect individual opinions regarding the vaccine and will include disability (including medical) and religious accommodations consistent with federal rules,” regents spokesperson Julie Newberg said in a statement.

a sign on a pole next to a tree: A sign that says "Forks up. Masks up." is shown on Arizona State University's campus in downtown Phoenix on August 5. The purpose of the sign is to encourage students to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. © Joseph Cooke/The Republic A sign that says "Forks up. Masks up." is shown on Arizona State University's campus in downtown Phoenix on August 5. The purpose of the sign is to encourage students to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

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The University of Arizona said its approximately 16,000 university employees, including student workers and graduate assistants and associates, have to submit proof of full vaccination unless they have received a religious or disability accommodation.

UA President Dr. Robert Robbins wrote in a letter to employees on Friday that the university has already received amended federal contracts that include the vaccine requirements. 

"We will continue with these mission-critical endeavors and will be complying with this new requirement," Robbins wrote. 

Just over half of UA employees have provided their vaccination records so far, according to university spokesperson Holly Jensen.

Northern Arizona University officials said the requirement will apply to all employees, including undergraduate and graduate student workers. Religious, disability or medical accommodations will be allowed as permitted by federal law.

About 50% of NAU employees have verified proof of vaccination, per a spokesperson. NAU has about 7,560 employees, per the Board of Regents.

Arizona State University officials said the university receives hundreds of millions of dollars annually in federal funding from grants and contracts, which is key to its mission and to benefitting Arizona's economy.

a group of people standing next to a fence: Students return to campus at the Arizona State University Tempe Campus, Aug. 14, 2021. © Benjamin Chambers/The Republic Students return to campus at the Arizona State University Tempe Campus, Aug. 14, 2021.

"Under the recent executive order issued by President Biden requiring all employees of federal contractors to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, ASU is required to ensure that every university employee by Dec. 8 either shows proof that they were vaccinated for COVID-19 or requested an accommodation on medical or religious grounds," spokesperson Chris Fiscus wrote in an email. 

ASU employs around 29,000 people, according to the Board of Regents. Many have already been vaccinated, per ASU.

Ducey maintains mandate opposition

Gov. Doug Ducey in a statement reiterated his view that the vaccine should be a choice rather than a requirement.

"Governor Ducey has been clear from the very beginning: the COVID-19 vaccine is proven to be effective and safe. He's been vaccinated and he encourages all Arizonans to get the vaccine," said C.J. Karamargin, a spokesperson for Ducey. 

"The governor also has said he is opposed to mandates and that getting the vaccine should be a matter of personal choice. His views have not changed."

The Governor's Office is reviewing the universities' decision to see what its options may be, Karamargin said.

COVID-19 vaccinations were optional for all employees before this, and remain optional for students who are not also employees.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Sept. 9 requiring vaccinations for federal contractors, which includes universities that have contracts with the United States government.

Jessica Summers, chair of UA's Faculty Senate and professor in the college of education, said she thinks the new requirement is a positive development, although not a surprising one given the federal policy.

“I think most employees will be open to this policy and will get vaccinated if they’re not already vaccinated, but there’s always going to be some who hold out or say that it’s their right to not get vaccinated,” Summers said. “I want to believe that most people at the university will step up and will be compliant.”

Summers said the big issue remains that the university cannot require students to get vaccinated due to an executive order from the governor.

“Unless they work at the university, I think students will continue to make the choice because they have the choice, and so I think we’ll be wearing masks well into the spring semester,” she said.

“There’s lots of other universities that are requiring their students to get vaccinated, and we are not one of them because we live in the state of Arizona.”

The employee unions at ASU and UA have advocated for vaccine requirements, among other measures, to protect workers and the community against COVID-19.

“There’s many things the university could still do, but we are very, very pleased with the decision to move forward with vaccination requirements” for workers, said Laurie Stoff, the ASU faculty representative on the steering committee of United Campus Workers of Arizona and a Barrett, The Honors College faculty fellow.

Stoff said the union has demanded vaccinations requirements since the summer and hopes a requirement for students will come next. The union also wants virtual work options for people who can’t get vaccinated, hazard pay for essential workers like custodial and food service, and full medical benefits for graduate students, she said.

Gary Rhoades, a United Campus Workers of Arizona member and professor of higher education at UA, agreed.

“Vaccinating employees is half the battle,” he said, as there’s still a need for student vaccinations, more masking and expanded testing.

“I’d like to see us go further, and lead, not just follow (the federal executive order) … more aggressive with testing, fuller masking requirements, student vaccinations and flexibility in work arrangements.”

Pennsylvania State University this week became among the first universities to announce an employee vaccine requirement linked to Biden’s order, Inside Higher Ed reported.  

Many colleges already mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for employees, according to a list compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education

Have a story about higher education? Reach the reporter at Alison.Steinbach@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona universities to require COVID-19 vaccination for employees, including student workers

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