Maine’s public sector employers – including state, county, and local governments, and public school systems – with at least 100 employees must require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing, the state’s Department of Labor said Friday, depending on the number of cases. continued to increase.
President Biden announced last week that all employees of companies with 100 or more employees will have to be vaccinated or take weekly tests to determine if they have COVID-19 in an effort to stop its spread. The requirement results in penalties of $ 14,000 per violation, which would be billed to employers.
While this applies to the private sector nationwide, it also applies to public sector employers in Maine with 100 or more workers due to long-standing state law and agreement. of 2015 with the federal government known as the “state plan,” in which Maine is required to adopt and enforce all Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, the Department said. Job.
Maine is one of 26 states and two territories that have entered into such agreements with the federal government.
In addition to the approximately 170,000 workers at 700 companies subject to the new rule in Maine, the rule also applies to employees of state and local governments, public school systems, the University of Maine system, Maine Community College. System, Maine Maritime Academy, Maine Turnpike Authority, and State Sewer and Water Districts.
The rule also requires employers to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated. Federal employees will need to receive the vaccine and cannot choose to be tested instead.
It’s still unclear how many workers in Maine will be affected by the new requirement, or how the number of employees for a city or school will be determined. For example, it is not known whether K-12 workers will be counted by school or by district, or if police and firefighters will be counted alone or in combination with other municipal staff. State officials said they expected more clarity once OSHA releases the guidance.
The Maine Board of Occupational Safety and Health is required to adopt and apply the OSHA rule for public employers within 30 days of the rule’s publication. It is not known when this will happen.
Currently, the approximately 11,500 employees of the executive branch of the state, which include those in the governor’s office, all departments, constitutional offices, and some quasi-independent or independent state agencies, must be vaccinated or wear face coverings at work. , according to Kelsey Goldsmith, communications director for the State Department for Administrative and Financial Services. Employees can remove their face coverings outside.
Pending the release of the final rule, the ministry “will continue to encourage all executive employees to be vaccinated and will continue to provide resources to assist our employees – including frequent communication on immunization availability and paid leave for those whose vaccination appointment falls. during their scheduled working hours, ”Goldsmith said in an email.
THE RULE HAS A MIXED REACTION
Mark Bernard, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, said in a statement he believes vaccines are the safest and most effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and variants of the virus, but he also believes that “any policy on vaccinations must be established through discussions and negotiations with the union.”
In Maine, AFSCME represents approximately 2,600 state, county, and municipal government workers, including state mental health and corrections workers, and approximately 560 public sector workers in Portland, said Jim Durkin, the union’s director of legislation, political action and communications.
“While a majority of our members may have already received a vaccination, many others have understandable concerns that we believe should be addressed before any policy is implemented,” said Bernard.
He urged government leaders to work with the union to come up with a mutually acceptable policy on vaccinations, including regular testing for those opposed to mandatory vaccines.
“If we fail to meet this goal, we will consider all of our options under the law,” said Bernard.
Dean Staffieri, president of the 1989 Maine Service Employees Association-Service Employees International Union Local, said in a statement that the union was “interested in seeing further details regarding the timing and scope of the standard,” but was not expressed opinion on the mandate in one way or another, beyond expressing support for the vaccine.
“The MSEA believes the best way to save lives is for everyone to get vaccinated, and we encourage anyone who is able to get vaccinated,” Staffieri said.
The union represents more than 13,000 employees statewide, with members working for the Maine Community College System, the Maine Maritime Academy, the Maine Turnpike Authority, several municipalities and all three branches of Maine state government.
South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said he had expected the mandate to apply to city employees and welcomed the confirmation from the Labor Department.
“Now that we have it, we will be working in partnership with Maine (Department of Labor) to ensure we implement this mandate fully and faithfully,” he said.
Based on an unscientific survey of workers, Morelli estimates that at least 90 percent of South Portland employees are fully vaccinated.
“While I hope those who are not vaccinated will receive the vaccine as a result of this tenure, I expect some will not, and therefore we will face the logistical challenges of the weekly submission. by these employees COVID test results showing they are negative, “he said. “It is doable, and it is in the name of public health, but it will be an additional burden.”
SUPERINTENDENTS ON BOARD
School principals said the Labor Department’s clarification is helpful as they work to keep students and staff healthy amid the upsurge in COVID-19 cases.
Jeremy Ray, superintendent of the Biddeford, Saco and Dayton school districts, said school boards are preparing to take the plunge next week to say employees must either be vaccinated or participate in pool testing. While he now has more clarity on what will be required under the federal mandate, Ray said he would still need information on whether pool testing will be a sufficient weekly test for employees who choose to. stay unvaccinated.
Data released this week by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education showed that about 76% of all school staff in Maine are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but the percentage of staff vaccinated vary widely by school, ranging from zero to 100 percent.
Ray said there were concerns among districts about whether Biden’s tenure could impact staffing levels, but those same concerns emerged when they considered implementing the option of local test or vaccine.
“We hope that we will continue to achieve a high level of participation in (vaccination), which we know will help us get a little closer to normal,” he said.
In RSU 23 at Old Orchard Beach, Superintendent John Suttie predicted that the federal mandate would apply to all employees in the district
“It makes perfect sense around the world that people who work with a population that is not yet eligible for vaccination should certainly be required to be vaccinated if there is one,” he said.
Suttie said any kind of clarity is beneficial as school districts and municipalities try to navigate the pandemic. RSU 23 officials have had discussions about warrants and testing, and the district welcomes a broader policy that does not pit communities against each other, he said.
“It would be a difficult thing to do when no one else is doing it or there is no guideline,” he said of compulsory vaccination or weekly testing.
NO CHANGE FOR SOME SCHOOLS
The University of Maine system, which employs more than 5,500 people in eight schools, recently adopted a new testing and vaccination protocol that Chancellor Dannel Malloy says brings the system into line with the new mandate: Be vaccinated or tested weekly.
“If you don’t comply, you ultimately lose your job,” Malloy said. More than 80 percent of the staff in the system are already vaccinated.
The Maine Community College System has been working for several weeks on a similar, even more stringent requirement.
Under the employee vaccination protocol, all Maine community college employees must show proof of vaccination or be tested for COVID-19 twice a week, in addition to masking and distancing requirements, Noel Gallagher said, director of communications and public affairs.
As of Friday, the community college network had signed agreements with five of the six bargaining units and expected to sign the final agreement on Monday.
There are approximately 1,460 full-time and part-time faculty and staff at the system’s seven community colleges.
Maine Maritime Academy likely won’t have to change anything to be in compliance, although school officials are asking for clarification. According to Janet Acker, the school’s personnel director, the academy set up weekly testing for unvaccinated staff several weeks ago, before the start of the school year. There are approximately 300 employees at the Maine Maritime Academy, and over 95 percent of them are vaccinated.
Friday’s announcement came as COVID-19 cases in Maine continue to rise.
The state reported 715 cases and two more deaths on Friday. There have been 201 people hospitalized and 76 in intensive care, one of the highest numbers of hospitalizations and the highest number of intensive care seen since the start of the pandemic.
The peak is caused by the highly contagious delta variant, which mainly wreaks havoc on the unvaccinated population in Maine and across the country. About 64.5% of the state’s population have been fully immunized, including 73% of those 12 years and over eligible for vaccination.
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