Companies with more than 100 employees prepare for vaccine mandate

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Sep. 26—Some employers in southeastern Connecticut are awaiting more information on how to implement the mandate that workers at companies with more than 100 employees be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or tested weekly, while others already have put their own mandates in place.

President Joe Biden announced this requirement Sept. 9 and directed the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to write a rule; companies that don't comply could face fines of $14,000 per violation. Spokespeople for OSHA didn't respond to an email Friday inquiring about the timeline for issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard.

Labor and employment law attorney Diane Mokriski, human resources counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, has been getting a lot of questions about the rule.

"I would say that generally, people's reactions have been really positive," she said. "I would say in many cases, they're relieved. I think for a lot of companies, it's nice to have the mandate come from the president of the United States rather than them."

Companies also are telling her that their customers are requiring employees to be vaccinated, such as if workers go to a site with children, meaning companies could lose business if their employees are unvaccinated.

The most common question Mokriski has gotten is who will pay for the testing for employees who decline to be vaccinated, and she said, "we really don't know the answer to that yet. OSHA will have to say."

She's also awaiting clarification on how to count the number of employees at some companies. Mokriski has gotten calls from several auto groups, who may have many dealerships but only 75 employees at each.

Another question Mokriski has been getting a lot is whether companies can require people to get vaccinated and not have weekly testing as an alternative, and she does know the answer to that: Yes. Companies have been able to require vaccination even before Biden announced the mandate.

Banks, casinos and others await guidance

Dime Bank President and CEO Nick Caplanson said he wasn't surprised at all by Biden's announcement, considering many large companies indicated they would institute a mandate even prior to the announcement.

He said the vast majority of Dime Bank employees are vaccinated but companies subjected to the mandate will probably be faced with the dilemma of a smaller percentage of workers who will dig in their heels and not get vaccinated. He is waiting on guidance from OSHA but is inclined to allow weekly testing.

"We obviously are going to comply with the mandate, but exactly how — from an operational and administrative standpoint — we deal with these issues remains to be seen," Caplanson said. "There's so many considerations here, and in this day and age, you obviously want to be — and you need to be — very sensitive to people's rights and what's appropriate."

Dime Bank has about 175 employees. Charter Oak Federal Credit Union, which has just under 200 employees, is also in limbo as it awaits guidance, said Laurie Cormier, senior vice president, chief of human resources and marketing officer.

Cormier said Charter Oak shared information on Biden's announcement with employees, encouraged them to get vaccinated and asked for proof of vaccination, "so we can plan ahead, if and when this testing becomes required."

She said the emails started flowing in with copies of vaccination cards, and almost 80% of employees are vaccinated.

Stop & Shop spokesperson Maura O'Brien said the grocery chain has "been monitoring the news released by President Biden's administration and will be evaluating the implications for the business and associates. We will work with both industry and government partners as this situation evolves."

At Mohegan Sun, President and General Manager Jeff Hamilton said in an email statement that though the casino is on sovereign land, it always has complied with OSHA regulations.

"Like many companies, we are awaiting more clarification on the Emergency Temporary Standard currently under development by federal officials," he wrote. "We plan to be ready to enact all protocols recommended by OSHA for the Emergency Temporary Standard, if they are not already required by Mohegan Sun through our existing safety plan."

Dale Merrill, senior vice president of human resources and administration at Foxwoods Resort Casino, said Foxwoods doesn't have a vaccine mandate but "will continue to review all options that have been credibly deemed in the best interest of public health and safety."

Merrill said about 75% of Foxwoods and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation government team members are fully vaccinated, and there's a random testing program in place.

The rule also will apply to The Day Publishing Company, which has more than 100 employees.

"I was happy with the announcement," Publisher Tim Dwyer said. "I think it takes the decision out of companies' hands, and that's what we have to do, and we're waiting for the final ruling, and we'll follow it."

He hasn't made a final decision yet on whether the company will require everyone without exemptions to be vaccinated or also allow for weekly testing. He said the company's vaccination rate is well over 90%.

Biden's announcement also included a mandate that all workers for federal contractors be vaccinated, and Electric Boat is prepared to comply.

Some already have mandates in place

Some companies had vaccine mandates in place long before Biden's announcement, and others have announced mandates since without waiting for the OSHA rules.

Hartford HealthCare, which includes Backus Hospital in Norwich, and Yale New Haven Health, which includes Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, announced in July they were requiring their employees to be fully vaccinated by the end of September.

News outlets reported in August that coronavirus vaccine maker Pfizer is requiring employees to be vaccinated or tested weekly. Pfizer has a research and development facility in Groton.

Spokesperson Pamela Eisele said in an email Thursday, "Pfizer is requiring all U.S. colleagues and contractors to be fully vaccinated by November 15, 2021, unless approved for a medical or religious accommodation from vaccination. For those granted a medical or religious accommodation, PCR testing is required."

She declined to comment on the vaccination rate among employees.

Mystic Seaport Museum President Peter Armstrong said in early September that staff must be vaccinated by Oct. 14. Jeanne Gade, director of human resources, said in an email Thursday that 99% of staff members are now fully vaccinated and "pushback has been virtually nonexistent."

The mandate was communicated to staff via a companywide email, Gade said. Staff members who needed assistance getting a vaccine were encouraged to contact human resources, but no such requests were made. The museum provided paid time off for staff members to receive vaccines.

Gade said staff members can request a religious or medical exemption but there is no option for weekly testing.

Mystic Aquarium spokesperson Dan Pesquera said a few weeks ago the aquarium gave employees until the end of August to prove they had received at least one vaccine dose or had an appointment, and achieved 100% compliance.

Chelsea Groton Bank President and CEO Michael Rauh said the company decided in August to require employees to be vaccinated, provide evidence of a medical or religious exemption, or be tested weekly. He said this went into effect Sept. 7, and 85% of employees are fully vaccinated.

It's on employees to get tested and provide evidence of their results, though Rauh said Chelsea Groton did buy a bunch of at-home tests at the beginning to distribute. Chelsea Groton has 218 full- and part-time employees, and Rauh said he isn't aware of people leaving as a result of this policy.