2021 | Government

Unions agree in principle to county’s vaccination mandate, but more negotiation remains

Vaccination data must be collected before further items can be bargained

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County officials and the three major employee unions have reached a preliminary agreement on requiring proof of vaccination against the coronavirus or weekly testing, but some logistical questions still remain.

County leadership, along with leaders from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1994 MCGEO, the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 35 and Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association signed a memorandum of agreement last month.

The MOA states that union leadership must provide their members’ proof of vaccination to the county by Sept. 18; it is to remain confidential.

There are still several items which must be bargained, according to a memo County Executive Marc Elrich sent to County Council members last month. Union leaders said those items will be bargained once both sides have a better idea of vaccination rates among the three unions.

The MOA states bargaining must begin within 72 hours after the county provides updated vaccination rates among the three unions.

The items include, but are not limited to: 

  • Who will pay for weekly coronavirus testing?
  • Will the county need to arrange the tests?
  • Can employees get tested during working hours?
  • If the county provides testing, where will that be?

Gino Renne, president of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, said in an interview that once data on vaccinations are given to county officials, negotiations on testing shouldn’t take too long — Renne estimated they could be completed by early October.

Many unions have historically supported freedom of choice, but also recognize there is a responsibility to keep fellow members safe, Renne said. And that best line of defense, he said, is the coronavirus vaccine. 

Negotiations still need to occur, but Renne said many unions have a “fundamental principle” when it comes to working conditions, which in this case would include weekly testing. 

“If an employer is going to pose working conditions, in order to maintain … conditions of employment — in this case, mandatory testing — that otherwise would not be something that they would have to assume a cost for, then we feel strongly that the employer should assume the cost of that condition of employment,” Renne said, noting that would be a starting point for that item during negotiations. 

So far, Renne said the county has done a good job of providing a safe working environment, and he hopes that continues. 

Lee Holland, corporation vice president of FOP Lodge 35, the county’s police union, also said it would be difficult to know how negotiations would go without knowing vaccination rates. But he had a positive outlook on how testing requirements would be bargained.

“I believe since voluntary testing has always been an option for county employees, paid for and conducted during work hours, nothing would change if we bargained a testing program,” Holland wrote in an email.

Like Renne, Holland added that the idea of employers providing a safe working environment is important to his union. 

Several police unions nationwide have pushed back on vaccine mandates. Holland, however, wrote that he anticipates his union has a high percentage of its members vaccinated. Preliminary numbers show over 70% of them are, he added.

“Personally, I am vaccinated, and I support personal choice, while also looking to maintain a safe work/community environment,” Holland wrote. “How we accomplish that remains to be seen, but I think our [vaccination] rate among officers, even among county employees as a whole, is impressive.”

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