Maine business leaders say they generally agree with the intent behind a new federal vaccine mandate for many private businesses, but some questioned its potential effects on workers and employers. Or how it would even work.

Some raised concerns that the requirement places an undue burden of responsibility on business owners, and that there’s not enough information on the logistics of its implementation, while one argued that it infringes on employees’ right to make their own healthcare decisions.

President Biden announced Thursday that in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, all employees of companies with 100 or more workers are required to get vaccinated or take weekly tests to determine whether they have the virus.

The requirement is expected to impact roughly 100 million American workers and will be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation. In Maine, roughly one-third of the state’s workforce – about 170,000 workers at nearly 700 companies – would be subject to the new rule. 

The rule applies to private-sector employees, health care workers and federal contractors. Employers are required to provide paid time off for vaccination. Federal employees will have to receive the vaccine and cannot opt to test out instead.

A Willis Towers Watson survey of 1,000 American companies released last week found that just more than half (52 percent) of businesses considered implementing vaccine mandates by the end of 2021, but only 21 percent had them in place already, according to CNN.

Many Maine employers already have encouraged their workers to get vaccinated – and about two-thirds of all Mainers have gotten at least one shot – but officials hope the new rule could be the final push for those who have resisted.

That hope, the desire for as many people to be protected against COVID-19 as possible, is one that Dana Connors, executive director of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, can fully get behind.

“I have no question or concern with the intention,” he said Friday. “My concern is one of implementation.”

There are still many lingering questions, Connors noted, like when this change goes into effect, exactly how it will be enforced, to whom businesses need to report results and how often.

It also adds a new level of responsibility for the estimated 700 or so businesses that will be impacted, and requires more accountability and liability, he said, adding that a $14,000 fine for a single infraction is a significant penalty.

From Day 1, business owners have gone above and beyond to do whatever they could to slow the tide of the virus, he said, so the mandate comes “as kind of unexpected in light of all they’ve done,” particularly during a time fraught with workforce challenges.

“We know there’s a number of people who just refuse to get the vaccination,” Connors said. “(Business owners) run the risk of, on the one hand, being an enforcer and possibly losing employees, and on the other hand, if they don’t comply and they don’t enforce, they’re subject to a fine. … A lot more has to be discussed.”

CONSEQUENTIAL UNKNOWNS

Kevin Hancock, CEO of Hancock Lumber, also worries that the mandate so far leaves too many questions unanswered.

If employees don’t want to be tested, do they need to be terminated? Can they just be suspended? If they’re terminated because they won’t be tested, can they still collect unemployment? Is there a statistical goal, like an 80 percent national vaccination rate? What if Maine achieves the target, but another state is still lingering behind? Does Maine still have to comply?

“I just don’t think anybody’s thought through the dynamics of this and how it’s actually going to play out,” Hancock said.

Hancock is not against the vaccine. He’s vaccinated and encourages his roughly 600 employees to get vaccinated. This fall, the company is offering free on-site COVID-19 and flu shots to anyone who wants one.

Like “everybody on Earth,” Hancock said he is tired of the pandemic and wants it to go away.

That said, he also has “a lot of respect for our employees as independent adults who are fully capable of making their own healthcare decisions,” he said.

Hancock Lumber has not counted who is vaccinated and hasn’t asked employees to disclose that information. The mandate will “represent a pretty dramatic shift” in how they’ve managed operations so far, he said.

The company will comply, “that’s just what you do,” but Hancock said he has larger concerns about the consequences of compliance and the precedent it sets, calling it a “slippery slope.”

Like Connors, he worries that by creating two classes of companies with two different sets of standards, employees could choose to leave in favor of a company with fewer than 100 employees that isn’t subject to the same restrictions.

“Everyone has good intentions with respect to helping to mitigate COVID,” Hancock said, but “intentions and outcomes are not the same thing.”

Camden National Bank is taking a “wait-and-see” approach pending more national guidance before making any changes to its current vaccination policy, said Renee Smyth, executive vice president and chief experience and marketing officer.

The bank has so far been flexible with its roughly 650 employees, strongly encouraging vaccines but not requiring them. Workers started coming back to the office this week, with many still working hybrid or remote schedules. The company has a roughly 70 percent vaccination reporting rate.

With the new mandate, the weekly testing is the biggest concern, Smyth said, but she is hopeful there will be more information in the coming days.

Biden said the government will work to increase the supply of virus tests, and that the White House has secured concessions from retailers including Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to sell at-home testing kits at cost beginning this week, but more detailed information has not been distributed. 

Camden National isn’t the only business trying to navigate the new set of rules.

SUPPORTIVE BUT CONFUSED

Officials at the University of Maine, which has roughly 4,500 full-time-equivalent employees, are waiting to see if, as a public university, the mandate even applies to them.

Chancellor Dannel Malloy said university officials are “trying to understand the implications of what the president said and be prepared to live by that.”

Either way, Malloy would love to see faculty and staff fully vaccinated – and they’re on their way with a more than 80 percent vaccination rate.

“The meaning that everyone should get vaccinated is absolutely correct,” he said, noting that the majority of deaths from COVID-19 are among those not vaccinated.

On-campus students are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 15, but as of yet, the requirement does not apply to staff. Talks with the school’s seven employee groups are ongoing and Malloy is “hopeful for agreement.”

“In the meantime,” he said, “we’re looking for further guidance from OSHA and the (Biden) administration and (we) support the view that everyone should be vaccinated.”

Other large employers including Bath Iron Works, Central Maine Power, Covetrus, Unum and L.L. Bean, declined to elaborate on their current vaccination policies or share thoughts on the mandate, but said they are committed to following local and federal guidelines to keep employees and customers safe. 

Others, such as MaineHealth, the state’s largest private employer, the city of Portland, Bowdoin College and Bangor Savings Bank, already had committed to policies similar to the Biden-imposed rule, whether by state mandate or by choice.

Gov. Janet Mills announced last month that all health care workers in Maine must be vaccinated against COVID-19. However, Mills’ requirement does not apply to many medical providers in the state.

Shortly thereafter, Portland city officials elected to adopt a similar requirement, mandating that city staff receive a vaccine or submit to weekly testing. The rule applies to about 1,000 city employees.

Portland was the first municipality in Maine and one of the first in the country to announce the requirements.

Bowdoin College and Bangor Savings Bank were early leaders in vaccination policies – Bowdoin was the first college in the state to require vaccines for both students and staff, and in March, Bangor Savings offered $500 to any of the roughly 1,100 employees who got fully vaccinated. Then, early last month, it announced that all new hires would be required to be vaccinated, and that any unvaccinated employees would be subject to weekly tests.

Biden’s sweeping vaccination mandate was met with mixed reviews from members of Maine’s congressional delegation, but according to spokesperson Lindsay Crete, Mills has been broadly supportive.

“The governor agrees with the president that the vaccine is the most effective tool to stem this surge, save lives and end the pandemic, and she shares his desire to see more people vaccinated,” Crete said in a statement. “We are also pleased the Biden administration agrees with Maine’s assessment that is it critical to vaccinate health care workers because of the role they play in protecting the health of Maine people.

Nationally, not all state leaders have felt the same. The Washington Post reported that governors in at least three states – Florida, Georgia and Texas – have promised to sue, claiming unconstitutional infringements on personal liberties.

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