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How employer vaccine mandates are playing out in one tribal economy
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Holly Perry was among the longest-serving employees at Shoshone and Arapaho Head Start, a preschool on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming.
“I was a Head Start teacher, and I’d been there since ‘91,” Perry said.
But back in August, Perry said she and her co-workers received a letter from their employer “saying that the tribes have adopted a new amendment to have everybody vaccinated.”
The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone business councils had passed a joint resolution requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for child care and education workers on the reservation. The Arapaho council went a step further, requiring all of its employees — just under 1,000 people — to get the shot.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to take the vaccine,’” Perry said. “On Nov. 2, I got a letter saying I am terminated from Head Start.”
Perry, who is 53, said she is getting support from family while she searches for a new job in the off-reservation town where she lives.
Indigenous Americans are vaccinated at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many tribal nations are surrounded by communities where vaccination rates are much lower.
Jordan Dresser heads up the Northern Arapaho Business Council, which approved the Wind River Reservation’s employee mandates earlier this year.
“The mandates were the best way to get the point across that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. It didn’t go away. It’s here and it’s mutating,” Dresser said. “And [the mandate] is to show that we’re serious about it and we’re serious about protecting our people.”
According to the Northern Arapaho Business Council, more than 70% of eligible tribal members aged 12 and older have gotten their vaccines. But surrounding communities are lagging, with less than 45% of eligible Wyomingites fully vaccinated.
“In terms of vaccinations, Wyoming is one of the lowest in the nation,” Dresser said. “Our tribal members take a risk every time they travel throughout the state. This was a way for us to exercise our sovereign muscle and also protect our people at all costs.”
Including economic costs. The Northern Arapaho Tribe is among the largest employers of Native and non-Native people in the county, and Dresser said most workers have complied with the mandate.
But some have moved on, leaving the tribe’s hotel and casino, its medical clinic, the reservation’s school districts and child care centers. One small public school district on the reservation terminated seven employees who refused the vaccine.
In this tight labor market, Dresser said replacing even a few lost workers is challenging.
“We have taken a hit in terms of attracting people to come work, and it’s just a problem that’s going across the nation,” Dresser said, adding that the tribe has conducted a wage study and is considering boosting pay for certain positions. “So that we can be competitive with Lander, Riverton and other surrounding places.”
Lander and Riverton are the two largest towns bordering Wind River, where vaccination rates are lower and employer mandates are few and far between.
Tribal and border town economics depend on each other, said Joseph Kalt, an economist with Harvard’s Project on American Indian Economic Development.
“Pretty intertwined economic conditions there in Fremont County,” he said.
But the tribes have taken a much more active role in combatting COVID-19 than surrounding communities. Wind River residents faced fines and possible jail time for violating an early stay-at-home order and mask mandate, while state and local leaders throughout Wyoming resisted such measures.
“[Tribal leaders] are balancing the same thing that any other elected official is balancing,” Kalt said: public health and economic recovery. “But the answer tends to come out more frequently, ‘Well, damn, let’s protect the public health first.’ We saw that in the early stages of the pandemic with how aggressively tribes went about shutting down their enterprises and government offices, and we’re seeing it now.”
The mandate has been successful in convincing holdouts to get the shot, Dresser said. That’s true for Leona Half, a former Head Start co-worker of Holly Perry.
Half said she got vaccinated to comply with the mandate and become eligible for COVID-19 leave when her daughter was exposed and sent home from school.
“She’s only in the first grade, so she can’t be home alone. It was a choice that I had to make because of my daughter, but to keep my job, too,” Half said.
But when Half returned to work, she said the preschool was understaffed; it had lost four or five other teachers over the mandate.
“Our duties were doubled. It was just really stressful and it was overwhelming at work,” Half said.
That extra work didn’t come with a pay raise, Half said. She ultimately quit to further her education so that she can someday get a higher-paying job.
Dresser said the business council is more concerned with preventing further COVID-19 illness and death in the community than losing a few employees. He said the Northern Arapaho Tribe will weather the staffing challenges, just like it weathered strict public health measures in the early days of the pandemic — while the rest of Wyoming was open for business.
“Our people are comfortable making that sacrifice for each other because Native communities are collective cultures, as opposed to individualistic culture, which is ‘Me, me, me,’” Dresser said.
He said the tribe won’t lift its mandates any time soon.
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