Some of Penobscot County’s largest employers that would be subject to President Joe Biden’s forthcoming COVID-19 vaccination requirement were already requiring that their employees be vaccinated.
Biden on Thursday unveiled a plan under which the federal government would require that employers with 100 or more workers mandate that their employees be vaccinated or participate in regular COVID-19 testing.
While the requirement would apply to up to 169,000 workers in Maine and 80 million across the U.S., it’s coming after some large employers have already instituted vaccine requirements of their own. In addition, its reach will be limited as it won’t apply to many large employers in Maine that are in the public sector.
In Penobscot County, some of the largest employers include local hospitals that have already been subject to a mandate from Gov. Janet Mills that health care workers be vaccinated. Another of the area’s largest employers, Bangor Savings Bank, just last week instituted its own requirement that new hires be vaccinated and that unvaccinated employees get weekly COVID-19 tests.
Eighty-six percent of Bangor Savings Bank employees in Maine and New Hampshire are now vaccinated, said CEO and President Bob Montgomery-Rice.
“This was the next logical and responsible step in continuing to do all that we can to keep each other and our communities as safe and healthy as possible,” he said. “Vaccination requirements in the workplace support creating a working environment that makes the safety and well-being of our employees and their families a priority, and has been predominantly well-received by prospective and current employees alike.”
Northern Light Health, which is based in Brewer and is the parent organization for Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, had announced plans to require that employees be innoculated even ahead of Mills’ mandate that health care workers be vaccinated by Oct. 1. The Mills administration now says it will start enforcing that policy on Oct. 29 to allow more time for medical employees to be vaccinated.
More than 90 percent of EMMC’s 4,157 workers are vaccinated, spokesperson Amy Kenney said.
Other large Penobscot County employers include national and regional retail chains.
A spokesperson for Hannaford, the Scarborough-based supermarket chain that employs more than 1,000 people in Penobscot County, said that the corporation was reviewing the order and remained “committed to complying with all local, state and federal laws.”
Walmart, which employs over 500 people in Penobscot County and operates stores in Brewer and Bangor, had previously only required that workers at its Arkansas headquarters be vaccinated while encouraging its in-store associates to get vaccinated. Walmart is the U.S.’s largest private-sector employer.
Biden’s policy will come through a rule from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and institute $14,000 penalties for employers that violate it. While it’s expected to apply to about a third of Maine’s private-sector workforce, it won’t apply to some of the largest employers in Penobscot County and the rest of Maine.
That’s because the rule won’t apply to public-sector employees, such as employees of local governments, school districts and the University of Maine System. Biden is encouraging that states require vaccinations for teachers and school staff.
The University of Maine System has mandated vaccines for on-campus students, and is negotiating such a policy for employees with faculty and staff unions, said Chancellor Dannel Malloy. He said the university system supports Biden’s policy.
“There have been too many setbacks caused by people not accepting science and not accepting the reality that the vast majority of people who continue to die as a result of COVID are the people who have refused to be vaccinated,” Malloy said.
The system employs 2,196 people in Penobscot County at its Orono flagship campus and the Bangor campus of the University of Maine at Augusta.
Eighty-three percent of full-time employees have verified that they’re vaccinated, said spokesperson Dan Demeritt.
Resistance to Mills’ vaccine mandate for health care workers could provide a preview of what’s to come in response to Biden’s policy. Mills’ policy so far is facing two legal challenges, one in state court and the other in federal court.