As COVID-19 vaccinations become more readily available to the general public, companies will be facing a decision: In order to ensure a safer workplace, should employees be required to show proof of inoculation?

Also, would such a mandate be lawful?

Laura Rideout, an attorney with Portland law firm Preti Flaherty’s labor and employment practice group, said certain industries indeed may impose such requirements in order to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19. Still, an informal survey of major employers in Maine by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that none have any immediate plans to require their workers to be vaccinated.

“Generally, employers may be allowed to mandate that their employees receive vaccinations,” Rideout said, “but there are a whole bunch of legal considerations that come into play.”

What if the employee objects on religious grounds? Or is pregnant? Or has a disability that conflicts with the requirement? The pandemic, Rideout noted, does not nullify anti-discrimination laws.

Rideout also raises the possibility of employees rebelling against a company’s hardline stance. If 75 percent of the workforce refuses to be vaccinated, that puts the company in a tricky situation.

“Do they back down? That doesn’t necessarily look great,” Rideout said. “It can have other implications if an employer has a policy on the books and doesn’t enforce it and then there are problems that arise that the policy was designed to prevent.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently updated guidelines concerning the impact of COVID-19 on anti-discrimination laws, with an entire section of questions and answers focused on vaccinations.

Included in the update is a reminder that guidance from public health authorities is likely to change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves: “Therefore, employers should continue to follow the most current information on maintaining workplace safety.”

A few of Maine’s largest employers already have policies in place regarding vaccinations, and others are still formulating their plans.

Two of the state’s largest health care organizations are encouraging, but not mandating, vaccines for their workers. MaineHealth requires flu vaccines, but stops short of a mandate in its stated policy to employees on COVID-19 vaccines.

“While the COVID-19 vaccine has gone through the trials and steps that would normally be required of any vaccine, and it has been shown to be both safe and effective, as it is a new vaccine, MaineHealth is not requiring care team members to receive it as is the case with flu vaccination,” reads the policy provided by a MaineHealth spokesman. “Still, we urge all eligible care team members to educate themselves and take advantage of this opportunity to enhance their safety and that of their colleagues and patients.”

Northern Light Health is encouraging all staff to get vaccinated and said it will offer to perform those vaccinations as more supply becomes available.

“As you know, current supplies are limited and we are focused on those staff members who are most at risk of COVID-19 exposure at this time,” said company spokesman Andy Soucier in an emailed response to a reporter’s question. “Currently, Northern Light Health has no plans to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for staff.”

Melanie Tinto, chief human resources officer at the Portland-based payment technology firm Wex Inc., said it was “highly unlikely” that her company would require a vaccine.

“At Wex, we always respect our employees’ choices to make their own healthcare decisions whenever possible,” she said. “With that said, we will likely work to see what we can do to help our employees and their families who choose to get access to the vaccine where possible.”

Central Maine Power is a subsidiary of Connecticut-based Avangrid, which operates in other states as well as Maine. That means policy is being formulated at a national level with the understanding that many decisions will be made at the state level.

“We are closely following the logistics associated with vaccine distribution that are being established at the state and sometimes county levels,” said CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett. “We are engaged in ongoing conversations as it relates to both the availability and timing of vaccine distribution, and will look to the recommendations by local and public health authorities to guide our decision-making process.”

Similarly, representatives of L.L. Bean, Idexx, Hannaford Supermarkets and Bangor Savings Bank all said they are following developments but not ready to implement vaccination policies.

Rideout, the Preti Flaherty attorney, said companies are probably wise to avoid strict mandates, “unless we’re talking about one of those critical industries where a vaccination is truly necessary for safety.”

She stressed that those who do receive vaccinations should not assume they can return to their old way of doing business.

“What the CDC has said is that vaccines are now one more tool that we have in our toolbox to promote safety,” she said. “People still need to be doing masking and social distancing. So from that regard, vaccines probably shouldn’t change the way employers are approaching whatever safety protocols they’ve already implemented in their workplace.”


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