2021 | Government

Where governing bodies stand on vaccination mandates for employees

Localities wrestle with issue as some allow medical, religious exemptions

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A Montgomery County vaccinator prepares COVID-19 vaccine syringes at the county clinic on Montgomery College's Germantown campus on March 31, 2021. Local governments are currently deciding whether to mandate vaccinations for their employees.

File Photo

This story was updated at 7:05 p.m. Oct. 14, 2021, to correct County Executive Marc Elrich’s stance on the County Council’s proposed vaccination mandate. 

As COVID-19 spread continues to be tracked in communities around the region, elected officials and government staffs are deciding whether to mandate vaccinations for their employees.

Those who have implemented a mandate have often decided to allow exemptions.

Opponents of mandates have argued that they violate workers’ rights. When an employee of Montgomery County Public Schools sued over the lack of a religious exemption, the district changed course and said it will consider religious exemptions.

The city of Rockville was one of the latest local governments to take a position, deciding on a mandate for its employees.

Here is a look at where some of the county’s largest governing entities stand regarding a vaccine mandate for employees.

Montgomery County government

The county is currently debating whether to implement a vaccination mandate for its employees. A current proposal, drafted by Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando, would allow for medical exemptions, as approved by the director of human resources.

Riemer, Jawando and other council members have called for a mandate, saying it would keep county employees and residents safe.

But union leaders have strongly opposed it, citing already high vaccination rates. County Executive Marc Elrich said he does not oppose the idea of a mandate, but is concerned that it could lead to staffing shortages in key positions, such as first responders.

County staff members are currently finalizing a report to see what impact the council’s proposed mandate would have on service delivery, Elrich wrote in a text message. That includes ambulance response times, police response and coverage in the county correctional facility in Clarksburg. 

The report will assess how many jobs can be lost in those areas before service worsens for residents, or when the safety of employees in those areas could be jeopardized.

“I wouldn’t propose firing people and reducing my staff in public safety without first pondering what the impacts of that might be,” Elrich said in a phone interview.

The county could consider many options instead of the current council proposal, Elrich said. One, he added, is not paying county employees’ sick leave if they get the coronavirus, and are not vaccinated. 

Initially, Elrich and his administration introduced a proposal that included the option for employees to opt out and agree to weekly testing, if they weren’t vaccinated. But some council members believe this measure does not go far enough in ensuring the public health and welfare. 

A public hearing on the proposed mandate is scheduled for Oct. 19.

Gaithersburg 

So far, Gaithersburg has not considered a vaccination mandate for its employees. 

Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman said in an interview that he is leaving the decision up to City Manager Tanisha Briley.

Briley said in an interview Monday that the city plans on following the lead of President Joe Biden’s administration. The U.S. Department of Labor will soon be coming out with rules for employers with 100 or more employees to either get tested weekly or be fully vaccinated. 

She added that city officials likely won’t change this plan, even if the county adopts a stricter mandate that doesn’t allow an opt-out for testing. But she is monitoring the situation daily, the same as with other decisions made during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rockville

On Oct. 4, Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and City Council members unanimously approved a resolution that requires all city employees to receive either one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both doses of a two-dose vaccine by Nov. 15.

The city will allow employees to request medical or religious exemptions. If either is approved, those employees would need to agree to weekly coronavirus testing.

Rockville City Manager Rob DiSpirito said during a council meeting last week that the mandate was needed to keep Rockville residents and employees safe, especially as the Delta variant continues to spread.

“I believe that as a nation, that we are in a race against time to achieve enough collective immunity before another variant arrives that might be resistant to our current vaccine, and then we would all be at the risk of sickness and death all over again,” DiSpirito said. 

Takoma Park

Takoma Park has not yet committed to a vaccination mandate for city employees.

However, City Manager Jamal Fox said in an interview on Monday that city officials are discussing a mandate with the city’s two labor unions and other partners. They also are reviewing what federal and state partners will be doing, he added.

He didn’t say when a mandate or other proposal could happen or be voted on, except that it could be in “the near future.”

“Everything is on the table,” Fox said. 

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