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Montgomery County Council considers mandating coronavirus vaccine for county workers

At-large Montgomery County Council members Hans Riemer, left, and Will Jawando, center, have spearheaded a bill that would mandate coronavirus vaccinations for county workers with few exceptions. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday introduced legislation that would mandate coronavirus vaccinations for county employees with few exemptions, eliciting sharp pushback from employee unions and County Executive Marc Elrich (D).

Spearheaded by at-large council members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando, the bill, if passed, would require that some 9,000 county employees provide proof that they have been fully vaccinated or face possible termination. Those unable to be vaccinated because of medical conditions would have to receive approval from the human resources department to continue working.

As of Wednesday, 77 percent of county employees had reported receiving at least one shot of a vaccine; 6 percent had disclosed that they were not vaccinated, and 17 percent had not reported their status. According to The Washington Post’s tracker, 89 percent of adults in the county have been fully vaccinated.

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“We’ve given employees a lot of time,” Jawando said Tuesday, adding that county workers such as police officers and firefighters often come into contact with residents who may have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to covid-19. “At this point, it’s irresponsible not to make it required.”

Elrich, a close ally of the county’s employee unions, disagreed, saying in a statement that the bill would lead to “diminished public safety, additional financial costs to our taxpayers, and time-consuming legal entanglements.”

“This brinkmanship legislation is not smart policy,” said Elrich, who faces reelection next year. In a news conference Wednesday, he clarified that he is not opposed to a mandate in principle, but thinks that lawmakers acted prematurely by proposing legislation before assessing the potential impact on county services.

Leaders of the county’s three employee unions released a joint statement Monday slamming the all-Democratic council for “overstepping its authority” and failing to include union leaders in discussions over the proposed bill.

Liberal Montgomery, which has the highest vaccination rate in Maryland, appears to be first jurisdiction in the D.C. region to formally consider a vaccine mandate without the opt-out measure of regular testing.

Elected officials and company leaders across the United States have been wrestling with how to boost vaccination rates among the leery — the country’s best hope of suppressing covid-related hospitalizations and deaths, and avoiding an overtaxation of the health-care system, public health experts say.

In early September, President Biden announced sweeping new vaccine mandates on large businesses and health-care organizations that accept Medicare and Medicaid funding. He also ordered all federal employees to get vaccinated, removing the alternative of being regularly tested.

Massachusetts and Washington state quickly followed suit, calling on state workers to get vaccinated as a condition of their employment. Worker unions in both states have sued, warning that state troopers and firefighters would resign en masse, causing critical staff shortages. But state leaders note that vaccination rates among employees have climbed since the mandates were announced.

In New York, thousands of health-care workers got their shots in the week before the state’s vaccine mandate went into effect Monday, driving the vaccination rate among those workers to 92 percent. But tens of thousands of employees remain unvaccinated, leaving hospitals bracing for staff shortages.

Montgomery County’s current “vax or test” policy — which is also in place for local government workers in D.C. and Fairfax County — is ineffective, Riemer said.

“The issue is more about ensuring a safe workplace for our employees rather than anything else,” said Riemer, who is running against Elrich for county executive. He does not think the policy will lead to a mass exodus of essential employees, he said, noting that the county’s sprawling school system has already imposed a vaccine mandate on its 25,000 employees without a testing opt-out. Outside of an online petition with several hundred signatures, there hasn’t been significant pushback.

According to county data, the departments with the lowest vaccination rates are Fire and Rescue Services and Correction and Rehabilitation, where about 63 percent of employees have reported being partially or fully vaccinated. A majority of the remaining workers in both departments have not reported their status.

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As of Wednesday, the library and finance departments lead the ranking of county agencies, with more than 92 percent of workers reporting having gotten at least one shot.

“Once we get people to respond, it might not be as bad as we think,” Jawando said. “If we didn’t have to pass this bill, that’d be great.”

Under the council’s proposed legislation, employees would have seven days after a county notification to provide proof of vaccination or apply for a medical exemption. Those who fail to do so will be placed on unpaid leave, then given 40 days to come into compliance before being dismissed.

Elrich said he worries that such a stringent requirement could backfire.

“It is hard to build enough trust to encourage any vaccine-hesitant employee to get vaccinated,” he told the County Council in a statement. “Making threats and resorting to a ‘get a vaccine or else you’re fired in 40 days’ policy is not the right approach.”

Earl Stoddard, one of Elrich’s assistant chief administrative officers, said the county is working with union leaders to get all employees to report their vaccination status. Officials plan to release an evaluation of the mandate’s potential impact on government services before the bill’s public hearing on Oct. 19, he added.

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