2021 | Government

UPDATED: County Council to consider potential vaccine mandate for employees

Workers who don’t comply could be placed on unpaid leave, fired; union leaders object

share this
montgomery-county-logo

This story was updated at noon on Sept. 28, 2021, to include comments from a statement by Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich.

The Montgomery County Council will consider a coronavirus vaccination mandate for county employees allowing for medical exemptions, setting up a possible showdown with its labor unions.

The council is scheduled to consider the bill on Tuesday, but is unlikely to take a final vote until at least next week. 

County Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando have co-sponsored legislation that would create the mandate, and exempt vaccine requirements from collective bargaining with employee unions.

The leaders of three employee unions released a statement on Monday calling the legislation “an outrageous intrusion” and a misuse of authority.

The joint statement came from Lee Holland, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the county’s police union; Gino Renne, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO, a union that represents thousands of county government employees in various divisions; and Jeff Buddle, the president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, the union for local firefighters.

The same three union leaders released a joint statement last week that their members have high vaccination rates and that a mandate would be “an unnecessary line in the sand that will result in a counterproductive conflict between the workforce and the employer.”

In a statement on Tuesday morning, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the legislation is unneeded.

He said the county is working with employees and unions to get as many people vaccinated as possible, as part of a plan that includes mandatory testing.

“Unfortunately, several County Council members now want to rip up this plan and upend the collaborative approach we have developed with our employees …,” Elrich said in the statement. “This brinkmanship legislation is not smart policy. It will lead to staffing shortages, diminished public safety, additional financial costs to our taxpayers, and time-consuming legal entanglements — all outcomes I have successfully worked with our employees to avoid since the beginning of the pandemic.”

County Council President Tom Hucker told reporters during a news briefing Monday that council members don’t yet have “reliable data” about how many employees might leave because of a mandate.

Hucker added that because a lot of vaccine mandates have been enacted very recently, it’s difficult to know if there is any reliable data. Employee surveys are a start, but they might not be completely accurate, he said.

Earlier in September, Montgomery County Public Schools implemented a vaccine mandate for all of its employees. An online petition circulated recently with hundreds of people who oppose that mandate, which allows medical exemptions, but not religious ones. 

“Like most policies, it’s a little more complicated the more you look into it,” Hucker said. “And usually, in many cases, I think we get a better product when we’re working with our frontline supervisors and union partners and others, to make sure whatever policy we’re considering at the council level … is actually able to be implemented.”

Jawando told reporters that it’s hard to get accurate data on who might leave because of  a mandate, but some of the least vaccinated county departments and divisions are first responders, according to county data. 

Those first responders often interact with the public the most, he added. And while only medical exemptions are currently in the bill, Jawando said he is open to discussing other potential exemptions.

But the public and other workers shouldn’t be concerned about their safety and whether others are vaccinated, Jawando said.

According to county data, as of Monday, 78.8% of county police officers reported receiving at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Among firefighters and rescue personnel, 62.7% reported receiving at least one dose, and among correctional and rehabilitation officers, 62.6% reported receiving at least one dose. 

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz told reporters that he understands the needs for some exemptions. But given where the county stands in the pandemic and the steps that other regional jurisdictions are taking — including Washington D.C., requiring its employees to be vaccinated unless they can provide a religious or medical exemption — a mandate “makes sense,” Albornoz added. 

Under the current bill, a county employee has seven days to prove they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or apply for a medical exemption, once they are notified by county officials.

Anyone who does not comply would be placed on unpaid leave, the bill states. They then have seven days to provide proof that they have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, or again apply for a medical exemption.

They have 40 days after they’ve been placed on unpaid leave or 40 days after their application for a medical exemption has been denied to provide proof that they are fully vaccinated, or they “must be dismissed from county employment.”

The joint statement by Holland, Renne and Buddle says:

“The bill is an outrageous intrusion into the role of the County Executive as the employer of record for the employees. The Council is overstepping its authority with this bill in an attempt to direct the workforce. By County Code, the Council is only allowed to direct funding or not funding county budgets, not to set standards of employment.

“Most egregious in this bill is that neither Mr. Riemer nor Mr. Jawando, who often claim to be on the side of the workforce, had the courtesy to reach out to the employee representatives to discuss the bill’s contents or aims. The bill prohibits any collective bargaining on the mandate and prohibits employee representatives from having a seat at the table to discuss the impact to the workforce. It gives the workers 40 days to get vaccinated or to face termination and eliminates in its entirety any due process for employees who are being subjected to termination.

“While Mr. Riemer and Mr. Jawando shelter in place and hide in their homes, conduct their business via Zoom, and introduce more and more Scott Walker-like, union bashing bills like this one, Montgomery County’s hardworking citizens have had to work through this pandemic. First responders and front-line employees have not had the luxury of working from home. They have served and continue to serve the public faithfully.

“What this bill does for Montgomery County’s public health is also unclear. While the Council is lauding the success of the vaccinations in the County, these Councilmembers are pointing fingers at the County’s own workforce as somehow a failure. The County’s workforce vaccination rate mirrors that of County residents. If one is a success, how can the other be a failure?”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com