Midcoast businesses grapple with federal vaccine mandate

·5 min read

Sep. 16—President Biden's Sept. 9 announcement mandating employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 weekly will impact an estimated 100 million Americans. Businesses across the nation and in the Midcoast are still coming to terms with the president's sweeping mandate.

Bath Iron Works is one of Maine's largest employers. Like other businesses The Times Record spoke with, the shipyard is figuring out how it will be impacted.

"We will monitor closely the new protocols as they are developed to ensure that we are ready to comply with them once they are implemented," BIW representative David Hench said.

Brian Fraser, a BIW welder of 27 years, recalled being in elementary during the government's enormous campaign to vaccinate children against diseases like polio and smallpox.

"I don't remember anyone complaining or stamping their feet in feigned outrage about the trampling of their individual rights or guzzling horse wormer," Fraser said, referring in part to bogus claims that an equine medicine is effective against COVID. "What I do remember is people listening to their government and trusting in medical experts."

Fraser continued: "I think mandates are the best way to get Covid19 under control but I have serious doubts about Americans' willingness to function as a cohesive society to bring about the extinction of this virus. All that being said the vaccination of BIW's workforce — of which I am one — is a matter of national security and is in the best interest of all concerned."

Maine retail

L.L. Bean Manager of Public Affairs Jason Sulham said the giant Freeport-based retailer has over 4,000 employees, although the number fluctuates seasonally. According to a company statement, the employee vaccination rate is currently above both state and national averages: "We will continue to be proactive on this front and will adhere to all government requirements as we have throughout the pandemic."

According to the Maine Department of Labor, in the second quarter of 2020, L.L. Bean was the 11th largest private employer statewide. L.L. Bean's current COVID-19 policy is that employees are required to wear masks and practice social distancing, regardless of vaccination status, when inside company buildings and stores.

Maine department store chain Renys has a 75% vaccination rate among its 100-plus employees, according to company president John Renny. The company hasn't yet decided what to do about the president's announcement because they're waiting for OSHA — the federal Occupational Safety and Hazzard Administration — to give guidance.

Bow Street Market Assistant Store Manager Charles Beardsley in Freeport said the owners are evaluating how to proceed with the new order, and have not yet released guidelines.

While Bow Street Market in Freeport combined with Bow Street Beverage in Portland employs over 100 people, Beardsley said the two are technically individual companies that employ under 100 separately.

Beardsley said that Bow Street Market is asking unvaccinated employees to wear masks, but masks are optional for vaccinated employees.

Some employees at retail chains Walmart and Hannaford are frustrated with the mandate.

Unvaccinated associates at Hannaford "are expected to wear masks while working," according to the company's website, which did not note whether the company required vaccines. Biden's announcement may change that.

But Dee Tardif, a deli associate at Hannaford in Topsham, said she is in no hurry to get vaccinated.

"I don't agree with the government's decision. I am not willing to get vaccinated just yet, so I will get tested regularly if that is an option," said Tardif.

Hannaford employs nearly 30,000 people across five states, which includes 350-375 associates in Topsham and Brunswick stores.

On Friday, Hannaford released a statement saying the company is "reviewing the details of the executive order and will closely monitor implementation plans, working with both industry and government partners."

Walmart in July announced that its corporate associates, managers and new hires be vaccinated by Oct. 4. However, frontline workers such as cashiers who regularly work with the public were not mandated to get the shot.

"I work at Walmart, and I strongly disagree with the government mandating and controlling businesses in this way," said Nathanael Martinez Pena, a resident of Lisbon who works at Walmart in Augusta. "I won't be taking the vaccine so if Walmart decides to opt-out of the testing option, then I will leave. I don't think the government has the right to say whether or not a company has to either have their employees vaccinated or have mandatory testing. I think it's an overstep of the government's power."

Midcoast colleges

In Brunswick, Bowdoin College announced in April that vaccination was required for all students, faculty and staff. Today, the college reports that 99% of the students and employees are vaccinated.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, in the second quarter of 2020, Bowdoin College was the 18th largest private employer statewide.

The Maine Community College System that serves seven community colleges already has a vaccination protocol for all its employees. Employees must show proof of vaccination or undergo COVID-19 testing twice a week and meet mask and social distancing requirements.

The system has 830 full-time employees and approximately 630 adjunct faculty who work part-time.

Nicole Gallagher, the director of communications and public affairs, said they have been working with the six unions that represent employees at the community colleges for several weeks now about their vaccination protocol.

As of Sept.14., the community college system had signed agreements with five of the six bargaining units, covering 98 percent of all employees, including full-time faculty and adjunct faculty.

"Only one bargaining unit, with 25 members, has not signed an agreement on the protocol yet, but that is largely due to scheduling issues, and a signed agreement is expected in the next few days," said Gallagher.

Students who do not have proof of vaccination cannot participate in on-campus activities, and must attend classes and access student services remotely, said Gallagher.

In August, Maine Health, northern New England's largest health system, announced that it would require COVID-19 vaccination for all care team members, with very few exceptions, as a condition of employment, as of Oct.1.

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