By Craig Moorhead

The Caledonia Argus

Houston County commissioners met on Dec. 28, finishing up some end-of-the-year business  and debating an issue which will affect county employees in 2022.

The board voted 4-1 to keep their 2022 salaries at 2021 levels ($19,016), as well as the per diem payments that members are given to attend certain meetings.

The only difference in 2022 will be an increase in standard mileage rates, which are set by the IRS. Those will rise by 2.5 cents per mile for cars, vans, and pickups. 

The lone “no” vote was cast by Commissioner Greg Myhre, who said he would support a cost of living increase for board members. Finance director Carol Lapham said the average wage for Houston County commissioners in 2021 (including the per diems) “was around $22,000,” noting that Commissioner Bob Burns chose not to take per diems.

Commissioners also voted to make a slight adjustment to the salary of the auditor/treasurer for 2022, raising it to $89,960 based on the expected hours and pay level.  

Another pair of unanimous votes closed out some 2021 issues. The first designated Road & Bridge, County Revenue, Public Health and Human Services, Debt Service, and Capital Projects as the “major funds” for Houston County’s 2021 audit, while the second approved a series of budget amendments to “accurately reflect various revenues and expenditures and fund balance usage of the Recorder’s Technology Fund and Compliance Fund.”

Commissioners also sat down with Houston County Public Health director John Pugleasa and personnel/facilities director Tess Arrick-Kruger, who asked for some direction as they addressed  potential new Minnesota OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements for employers with 100 or more workers. Those may either require COVID-19 vaccinations for all county employees, or require weekly testing and masking for those who remain unvaccinated.

The new rules could go into effect  “As soon as January 3rd, 2022,” Arrick-Kruger stated. “However... they say they will not start issuing any non-compliance (citations) for good-faith efforts to adopt a plan, and to start collecting the medical data on who is vaccinated until January 10. (And) so long as we will not be issued citations - a testing requirement (will not be enforced) until February 9th, 2022, that is, if they find that there’s good-faith efforts made towards compliance.”

“So basically, you’re looking for whether we want to do a mandated vaccination policy or do we want to do voluntary vaccinations with the testing (and) mask requirement?” Commissioner Teresa Walter asked.      

“I think that to to meet the requirement of OSHA you need  to either account for people who are (vaccinated or not)...” Pugleasa noted. “You either say vaccination is a condition of employment that everybody has to deal with, or those who choose not to be vaccinated undergo testing on a weekly basis and mask up in the workplace.”

Medical and religious exemptions would likely apply, some commissioners noted. In addition, masking rules for employees would differ depending on whether or not a person is working indoors near others or outdoors, with more separation from other persons.   

Commissioner Eric Johnson asked if the county has the right to ask for vaccination status. “Yes, we do,” Arrick Kruger said, adding that “we collect medical information currently, under certain conditions on employees, and we have an obligation to keep that information separate from the regular personnel files.”

There was no vote, but all five commissioners reached a consensus of opinion they preferred a policy favoring voluntary vaccinations, with weekly testing for those who cannot provide proof of  vaccination. Various details – such as who would pay for testing unvaccinated employees – were not included in the board’s preliminary decision.

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