ALFRED — York County Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of mandated employee COVID vaccinations pending the anticipated adoption by the Maine Department of Labor of new rules by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Commissioners will review a mandate policy at their Jan. 19 meeting, one day after the Maine Board of Occupational Safety and Health meets to adopt a work rule replicating OSHA’s Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standards.

The three commissioners voting in favor — Allen Sicard, elected chair by his peers at the Jan. 5 meeting — Richard Clark and Richard Dutremble, agreed to pursue a mandate over the objections of Commissioners Donna Ring and Robert Andrews, who was named vice chair.

County Manager Greg Zinser said while the county does some testing, as it did  during a recent COVID outbreak at York County Jail, it does not have the capacity to do weekly testing if it is included as an option.

As of Jan. 5, 206 county employees had been vaccinated — but 35 employees reported they were unvaccinated, and 25 had not reported their status. That could mean as many as 60 workers would require weekly testing. At $113 or more per test, that would work out to more than $300,000 a year, Zinser estimated.

“To ask the people of this county to spend $300,000 for virtually nothing is absurd, and I don’t think it provides protection for employees — even from one another,” said Commissioner Richard Clark.

“It’s too much of a scheduling issue” for the county to conduct regular testing, said Sicard.

Clark made the motion to mandate COVID vaccines after Zinser asked for direction, noting it will take time to put a plan in place. The issue had been discussed in November, with Sicard joining Andrews and Ring in voting to investigate testing costs. At that time, Sicard said he favored waiting until more was known about how the issue might be decided on the federal level.

“I continue to be in favor of mandating,” said Clark. “The only difference between where we are now and where we were six weeks ago (at the last discussion) is there are a lot more dead people and a lot more cases all over this state and all over this country.”

Clark moved that the board instruct administration “to prepare to go down a route that vaccines will be required for employees if they want to work for the county,” and to bring back a plan Jan. 19.

Andrews, who is a pastor and also has a second job, objected to a mandate and noted the state allows no religious exemptions.

“There’s always been reasonable accommodation for people not to be vaccinated,” he said. Andrews said he understands the fear of COVID,  and said he was asked to be vaccinated for his second job, “and I chose to for the greater good of the people I serve.”

“I’d like to go in the area of testing, and we have American Rescue Plan funds,” said Ring. “I don’t think we should be asking people to put something in their system they don’t want. I will never vote to mandate vaccines.”

Dutremble noted children are required to have an array of vaccines before starting school. “This is no different, this is to save people’s lives,” Dutremble said.

The decision came as the county prepares for the state adoption of Occupational Health and Safety Agency rules.

On Dec. 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dissolved the Fifth Circuit stay of OSHA’s emergency temporary standards, requiring private sector employers with 100 or more workers to mandate full vaccination for employees or present proof of weekly negative testing. This triggered a requirement that the state Board of Occupational Safety and Health adopt its own rule for public sector employers, the Maine Department of Labor noted in a bulletin. The BOSH rule must, at a minimum, conform to the federal OSHA standard.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, OSHA allows state plans some enforcement leeway. “Upon adoption of the rule, the department intends to exercise its enforcement discretion by requiring compliance with certain requirements of the rule on February 17 and the entire rule by March 19,” according to the state labor department. “Details will be available upon adoption of the rule.”

York County Human Resources Director Linda Corliss said much work needs to be done to meet the February date. “We will be non-complying if we don’t plan now,” she said.

Zinser said the county would start meeting with the unions for impact bargaining on the matter.

Reached Jan. 6, County Patrol Association  President Mathieu Nadeau said he had not at that time been made aware of the vote.

“We’re definitely interested in having a discussion” with management, he said.

Maine Service Employees Association Local 1297 President Rachel Sherman said a reaction is premature until the policy is presented, but the MSEA is open to having discussions.

Brian Maddox, president of the National Correctional Employees Union at York County Jail, said he too wants to view the policy.

“No matter what they do, someone will be upset,” Maddox said. “The commissioners have a responsibility to the taxpayers, and (also) a responsibility to keep employees safe.”

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