ALFRED — York County Commissioners have authorized County Manager Greg Zinser to move forward with determining costs associated with weekly COVID-19 testing of York County government’s unvaccinated workers but declined to authorize planning for a federal or county-imposed vaccine mandate.

“The conversation tonight is do you want us to do a mandate on our own, with Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements or testing,” Zinser asked the five-member board on Nov. 17. He said he was not looking for a final decision, but direction so plans could be crafted.

York County has about 264 employees, said Zinser. When asked, 81 percent of workers had said they had been vaccinated, he said, but as of the meeting date, Nov. 17, only 55 percent  had been verified.

Some employees cautioned that a vaccine mandate could result in employees leaving their jobs in a labor market that is already tight.

“If you make it mandatory, at least 10 will walk,” predicted National Correctional Employees Union Local 109 President Brian Maddox of corrections officers at York County Jail. Maintaining staffing levels at the jail has been an issue for the last several years. “And you limit who will apply,” he said.

The jail had one COVID outbreak but has since done well, Maddox said, adding, “we do the testing.”

The quest for direction comes ahead of further court action on a federal mandate. Enforcement of the federal OSHA rule on mandated vaccines or weekly testing for employers with 100 or more workers was stayed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Nov. 6. As of Nov. 22, the matter was consolidated with several lawsuits challenging the OSHA rule, according to the National Law Review, and the Sixth Circuit was to consider the matter. Many expect the case will ultimately decided by the U.S.  Supreme Court.

“We have an obligation to protect our employees and we have an obligation to deliver services to the people of this county, and right now I don’t think we’re doing either,” said Commissioner Richard Clark. He said the county can act without the Supreme Court’s decision and should do so. “COVID is not going away,” said Clark. “I think we should step up and do what’s right.”

Other commissioners had a different view.

“Any action or recommendation the board makes is putting the cart before the horse,” said Commissioner Allen Sicard. “Stay with existing policies until we hear a clear case coming down from probably the Supreme Court. Whichever way we go, it’s going to rile people up. If you have a mandate and people are in danger of losing positions … my feeling is, it’s not settled, and we don’t want to put something into place that’s going to be reversed in court in 30 or 60 days. … and I know it’s a lot of extra work to do all this testing, but continue with policies in place for testing now.”

“As a commissioner I will not mandate,” said Commissioner Donna Ring, but she said if a federal mandate comes, she hopes the county would use American Rescue Plan Act funds for testing. She noted the county would be obligated to implement a court decision. “If we’re forced to do it, we’ll be forced to do it. But I won’t support mandate of any type at all … I believe we have a responsibility to our employees, but we also have a responsibility and obligation to protect the constitutional rights of our citizens in the county.”

“I don’t believe the vaccines are the silver bullet,” said Commissioner Robert Andrews, noting increasing COVID-19 cases. “For my way of thinking, it’s more about liberties, and we don’t have the right to mandate people taking an injection into their body if they have reservations, be it religious or otherwise. We cannot bow to the fear or bow to the pressure of OSHA, and I will not vote for a mandate.”

Zinser said it would put the county “behind the 8-ball quite a bit, if we wait until the bitter end.”

A return to the bargaining table would also have to be considered, he noted.

The county currently does not have the capacity to conduct weekly testing for those who are not vaccinated, Zinser said.

“At some point you have to discuss the mandate stuff, but if you don’t go the mandate route you do have to test, so I’ll be looking for a supplemental appropriation,” Zinser said. He pointed out that existing policy spells out that employees pay testing costs, but state law says the employer does. Testing where some departments are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, could be problematic, he said.

“We’re going to have to decide who will witness that test, an employee or a medical provider,” Zinser said, estimating the cost of testing alone at $100,000 annually, plus the cost of personnel. “We don’t have the capacity to monitor and implement the payroll reporting or the (other) reporting that will be required … give us some direction because it’s going to be hard taking a shotgun approach with three or four policies. We’re going to have to be ready.”

York County Jail Sgt. Colton Sweeney said he has a sincere belief in medical and religious freedom and has spent hours reading about the vaccines and physical reactions to it. “If I am forced (to have the vaccine) and have an adverse reaction, who specifically in York County government is going to be held liable?”

“That becomes a worker compensation issue,” said Zinser.

York County Patrol Association President Travis Jones said rural patrol is understaffed, and predicted a mandate would likely mean people would leave.

Clark moved that the board ask the county manager to work on a policy requiring a vaccine mandate for all employees and report back to the commission, but the motion died for lack of a second.

Ring moved to direct the county manager to continue on with current policies and to do more research on the cost of testing and staffing and come back to the board with that information. The motion was seconded by Andrews.

“What you’re saying is to the county manager and his staff ‘go forward in all directions,'” said Clark. “It’s not helpful and not useful, it doesn’t solve the problem; it doesn’t address the problem. This is a public heath emergency that killed more than three-quarters of a million Americans. … we as a board have an obligation to protect our employees even if we have to protect them from each other, and you’re doing nothing in terms of solving or addressing this problem. … I think it’s very disappointing that this board doesn’t have the spine to deal with a very important question facing it, but it is what it is.”

Commission Chair Richard Dutremble said he agreed with Clark.

Commissioners Sicard, Ring and Andrews voted in favor of pursuing a testing plan; Commissioners Clark and Dutremble were opposed.

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