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Debate continues over impact of vaccine mandate for employees

by Judith Hruz

Editor

Some county officials remain at odds over whether to make it a mandate that county government employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

County Councilmen Hans Riemer (D-At large) and Will Jawando (D-At large) on Sept. 28 introduced legislation that would require the vaccination of county employees against the coronavirus, while also permitting documented and approved medical accommodations.

Bill 34-21— Personnel and Human Resources – COVID-19 Vaccination Required — provides that all individuals employed by Montgomery County, regardless of their merit system status or representation by an employee organization, would be required to provide proof of being fully vaccinated for COVID-19 with a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) within seven days of notification from the county.

Employees who fail to present proof of vaccination will be placed on unpaid leave and will need to provide proof that they have received at least a first dose of their vaccination within seven days and be fully vaccinated within 40 days of the date they were placed on unpaid leave.

A public hearing on the bill on Oct. 19 drew passionate testimony from residents, firefighters and police, many of whom said they are not opposed to vaccines, but instead are opposed to being forced to get vaccinated or lose their job.

Jeffrey Buddle of IAFF Local 1664 said Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service could lost 100 career firefighters, which “could plunge Montgomery County into a public safety crisis.”

Montgomery County Police Officer Mark Hugi said the proposed legislation would “take medical decision out of the hands of the individual and their doctors and put it in the hands of the council.”

He said enacting the legislation would be “the straw that broke the camel’s back for many of our members who are experiencing all-time low morale.”

Lee Holland of Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 35 said the organization has encouraged its members to get vaccinated.

He said it is the other side of the issue that is important: allowing people to make their own health care choices and respect those choices.

Some of the passionate debate has come from the elected officials.

Members of the County Council have chastised County Executive Marc Elrich for not supporting the legislation.

Elrich has said repeatedly he believes all employees should be vaccinated, but said, “I want to understand what the consequences are going to be and know how to manage them.”

“Vaccination mandates are routine in many settings, such as school, and they work,” Riemer said in a press release.

He added, “Requiring vaccination for county employees will help keep our workforce, their families and the residents they serve safer.”

In campaign literature, Riemer, who is running for county executive, said Elrich is opposing the council mandate.

At the beginning of the public hearing, Riemer said Elrich is using “scare tactics about impact of the vaccination requirement.”

Elrich has said some people have “gone out of their way to misrepresent my position” on requiring vaccinations for county employees.

“I’ve never said I was opposed to vaccine mandate,” he said. “We just need to make sure we have people to provide services.”

Elrich asked all public safety department leaders to assess what the legislation would have on staffing.

He said if the county is not able to staff the jail, fire and rescue, police and other public safety agencies, “then we run the risk of serious consequences.”

The report from Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services (FRS) calls the current staffing situation dire.

“A vaccine mandate for FRS only adds additional staffing pressure and puts FRS at extreme risk for severe degradation of service (loss of total service and increased response times for remaining services) that will be immediate, noticeable, and long-lasting,” according to the report.

Angela Talley, director of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, reported that if the 114 correctional officers who are not yet inoculated do not comply with the mandate, the impact could require normal overtime practices would have to be use to fill vacancies, Special Assignment Officer positions would have to be returned to officer duties, visiting and programs would have to be canceled, two-person posts would have to be reduced to one-person posts and some other security posts would have to be collapsed, among other …

The Montgomery County Police Department reported that regardless of specific numbers of possible personnel who would be lost to the mandate cannot be assessed, any changes would have a great impact on public safety.

Elrich said 280 sworn and 110 professional staff might have to be let go, and it takes at least 18 months to get recruits ready for patrol – if the recruits can be found.

“I would be doing my job if I didn’t ask these questions,” he said, adding the county should never make a decision it will regret later.

In all instances, approved medical exemptions are accommodations; therefore, those who received an approved exemption may still be required to wear masks, get tested, social distance or follow other protocols.

The COVID-19 vaccination requirement is exempt from collective bargaining, meaning all county staff are required to comply.

An employee who fails to fulfill the vaccination requirement or secure a medical accommodation after having been placed on leave would be subject to dismissal from employment.

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