The Montgomery County Council currently is deciding whether to mandate all employees be vaccinated or terminated. They also will decide whether to include religious and medical accommodations.
“This is all about managing risks, and there are risks on both sides,” said Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz, who presided over the joint committee workshop with members of the Government Operations and Health and Human Services committees Monday afternoon.
While councilmembers, union leaders and county department heads all agreed on the need to vaccinate against COVID-19, many also were concerned that they would lose employees and fail to attract new employees at a time when many departments already are operating with below minimum staffing.
The discussion is expected to continue after council’s December recess.
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Goldstein said it would be difficult for his career staff to quickly handle all calls if even just a handful of employees opt to leave due to a vaccine mandate. Problems would be particularly acute in the departments of swift water rescue and hazardous material calls, he said.
Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones said the issue would be most acute at the emergency communications center, where he said he believed up to 20 dispatchers would leave. He said that would be “a heavy loss” on a workforce that already is working extra hours.
Dr. Earl Stoddard, county assistant chief administrative officer, predicted there would be serious staffing issues among employees who work with the public, including fire and police, bus drivers and those in the alcohol services department.
However, he noted, the number of employees showing proof of vaccinations continues to grow. About five to seven percent of county employees have not provided proof of vaccinations.
Albornoz pointed to a survey that said 10 to 12% of county employees are unvaccinated or have not reported their status.
According to Goldstein, at the end of October, about 30% of career fire and rescue workers did not provide proof. The number has shrunk to 19%.
As of this past weekend, 24 people have been suspended and are using their own personal sick leave, he said.
“The staffing challenges are daily” and won’t improve until July 2022, when the next group of new firefighters graduates the required classes, Goldstein said.
Geno Renne, president of Montgomery C0unty GEO whose members include Ride On bus drivers, said, “We are going to be 100 drivers down” if the mandate goes into effect. Some drivers have already put in their two week notice, he said.
Lee Holland, corporation vice president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, said his department already is losing 10 officers a month. “We can’t afford to lose any more,” he told council members.
But Councilmember Hans Riemer said the county is losing staff time to quarantining and sick leave due to the virus, some of which could be avoided if all were vaccinated. While it would be difficult to operate should employees quit rather than be vaccinated, Riemer said it also is difficult to run the county when workers don’t feel safe knowing their coworkers are not vaccinated and residents don’t feel confident if the public servants they call upon are not vaccinated.
Riemer said that on Monday, 132 county employees currently were in quarantine, awaiting results of a COVID-19 test or self-quarantining and not able to work. That number includes 22 Department of Corrections staff members, where some of the lowest vaccination rates have been recorded.
According to Nicole Rodriguez-Hermandez, county legislative analyst, 93% of Montgomery County Public School employees have provided proof they are vaccinated. Another 264 employees have requested a religious accommodation and 197 have requested a medical accommodation, she said.
At Montgomery College, 97% of the employees have provided proof they are vaccinated, and 88 employees requested a religious accommodation of which 11 were granted. Another 23 requested a medical accommodation, which nine have been approved, she said.
Under the county’s proposed mandate, an employee who fails to provide proof of vaccination (or to apply for a medical accommodation), within 7 days of notification from the County, would be placed on unpaid leave. The employee placed on leave would have seven leave days in which to provide proof he or she has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The employee then would have to provide proof of full vaccination within 40 days of having been placed on unpaid leave. Ultimately, an employee who fails to fulfill the vaccination requirement (or to secure a medical accommodation) after having been placed on leave would be subject to dismissal.