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Kansas university workers must get COVID shots, but Kansas law makes enforcement difficult

It’s unclear how many employees already got the shots. Pittsburg State University says 80% of its benefit-earning workers got vaccinated when the school offered bonuses.

Kansas universities are in a tight spot, stuck between federal COVID-19 vaccine requirements and a Kansas law against using state dollars for this. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars are on the line.

On Friday, the high stakes led at least three of the six state universities — the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Wichita State University — to say all employees must get the vaccine.

The federal government is requiring the shots for all employees involved in federal work.

Kansas’ state universities employ about 20,000 faculty and staff members. The Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the schools, hasn’t said how many of those people fall under the mandate.

However, it sent a memo to the universities on Thursday warning that contracts and subcontracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars hang in the balance.

The schools get that money from myriad federal agencies, ranging from NASA and the National Science Foundation to the Department of Education and the Department of Energy.

Determining which workers fall under the federal mandate is complex.

The Board of Regents says the rule extends beyond workers doing direct work for the federal government, meaning it also covers anyone doing related services, such as human resources, finance and internet technology.

So schools announced everyone on their payrolls must comply.

“K-State has more than 275 federal contracts and cooperative agreements,” the school said in a press release, “affecting almost every aspect of our university.”

It said the policy doesn’t apply to students not employed by the school.

KU Chancellor Doug Girod said in a letter that the huge amount of research money at stake means staff who don’t comply would face discipline that could include termination.

“We cannot be flexible with employees who choose not to comply,” Girod said.

Wichita State said unvaccinated employees should get their first dose “immediately,” because of the Dec. 8 deadline for full vaccination.

“After a thorough internal review of the order and its implementing guidance … we have determined that the order applies to the entire WSU workforce,” it said.

Only medical and religious exemptions are allowed.

The Kansas Board of Regents memo notes that state law bars the universities from using any state funding to carry out the mandate, however. And it calls this stuck-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place situation “troubling and difficult.”

“Every effort should be made to use non-state funds and federal overhead,” the memo said, “to finance the federally mandated vaccination requirements.”

It’s unclear how many of the state’s university employees are already vaccinated. Earlier this month, Pittsburg State University announced that 80 percent of its benefit-earning employees got the shots after the school offered $1,000 bonuses for doing so.

KU said it doesn’t have a hard figure, but estimates that 80% of faculty and staff at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses have gotten the shots so far.

Meanwhile, the Kansas National Guard faces a similar conundrum.

It says it will be able to apply federal funds to make sure service members are vaccinated against COVID-19 as required by federal rules.

State lawmaker Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth County Republican, wrote to the Kansas National Guard earlier this month, contesting its vaccine requirement.

But Kansas Adjutant General David Weishaar responded that the Kansas National Guard would tap federal money and steer clear of state allocations to carry it out.

The Kansas National Guard vaccine requirement is part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s mandate that all service members get vaccinated.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.