‘Unnecessary risk?’ Debate over Montgomery Co. vaccine mandate continues

Several police officers and local union officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, testified before the County Council Tuesday in stark opposition to a proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for county employees, arguing the proposal violates their personal rights and could lead to staffing shortages.

No decisions were made at the public hearing. The next step is a committee work session scheduled for Nov. 22.

The proposed vaccine mandate — which would no longer allow county employees to provide weekly negative COVID-19 test results instead of getting vaccinated — has also divided county leaders.

The measure is sponsored by Council members Hans Riemer, Will Jawando and Gabe Albornoz but has been strongly criticized by County Executive Marc Elrich, who has said he fears a “breakdown” in critical public safety functions if employees are pushed out by the mandate.

Appearing at the council hearing Tuesday to represent the Elrich administration, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said the county executive supports vaccine mandates in principle, but is “deeply concerned that the bill as written will create critical challenges” in staffing public safety agencies, such as the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, the police department and the county corrections department.

Late last month, Elrich ordered a risk assessment of county staffing levels to study the potential impact of the vaccine mandate if a significant number of employees resigned, retired early or were terminated.

“The key take-away is that even if a mandate results in 95% or greater compliance — as I suspect it would — 3 to 5% reductions in our public safety programs would be an unsustainable level that would result in service reductions,” Stoddard said, adding that, because of the time it takes to recruit and train first responders and other public safety workers, the impact could be long-lasting.

In another example from the report, Stoddard told council members that if the Fire and Rescue Service department lost just 2% of its workforce — roughly 25 members — the department would have to reduce services.

“When I hear that from the fire chief, that’s significant to me,” Stoddard said.

He added, “The county executive believes that any personnel reduction that reduces public safety coverage puts our residents at unnecessary risk and should be avoided.”

Council President Tom Hucker noted that staffing challenges have persisted in public safety agencies for years and that Elrich “shouldn’t just hide behind that issue like it’s a brand-new issue.”

There were also tough questions for Stoddard from council members on the status of the county’s plans to conduct regular testing of unvaccinated county workers.

Under a Board of Health regulation approved by the council in August, the county executive was supposed to submit a comprehensive vaccination-and-testing plan for the county workforce by Aug. 20.

The plan has still not been provided.

“How can we expect the public to comply with our Board of Health orders and insist that our employee comply with numerous Board of Health orders when your own administration is not in compliance with an order we passed two-and-a-half months ago,” Hucker said. “Are you comfortable with the signal that that sends to the public?”

Stoddard said he agreed that the Elrich administration should have done a better job providing the plan to the council, but he said it took time to understand how many employees have decided not to be vaccinated and, thus, the number of tests that would be regularly needed as well as a “logistically feasible” way of testing workers.

Hucker replied, “We have an administration that has just chosen not to comply with the health order, and we are sending hundreds of firefighters and police officers out into the front lines every day to interact with the public … There’s no reason you can’t just send test kits to every firehouse and every police station in the county.”

Stoddard pledged the county would provide lawmakers with the testing plan by the end of the week.

The vaccine mandate the county council is considering would require county workers to be vaccinated with only medical exemptions permitted. The legislation would exempt the vaccine requirements from collective bargaining with employee unions and would allow for discipline up and including termination for employees who fail to comply.

Overall, 80% of the county’s nearly 9,500 employees report that they are fully or partially vaccinated. But another 13% have not reported their vaccination status, and 8% say they are not vaccinated.

Within particular departments, there are even higher proportions of unvaccinated employees — or employees who are refusing to provide their status.

Within the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, for example, just under 64% of the agency’s roughly 1,400 workers report being at least partially vaccinated, while more than 30% have not reported their status. About 5% of Fire and Rescue workers have reported they are not vaccinated.

In the police department, 80% of the nearly 1,900 members are at least partially vaccinated. Another 13% of police employees have not reported their status, and more than 6% said they are not vaccinated.

During the portion of the public hearing set aside for public testimony, several Montgomery County police officers, as well as local union officials, shared their opinions.

Lee Holland, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, which represents 1,500 members, pointed to long-standing recruitment and retention challenges in the department and claimed an FOP poll of members indicated that as many as 300 officers are “considering leaving” if the bill passed.

“These numbers are real and scare me as a county resident and should scare everyone,” Holland said.

Jeffrey Buddle, with the International Association of Firefighters Local 1664, said the Fire and Rescue Service is already “at a breaking point” in terms of staffing levels.

Between June and October, there have been 1,549 hours of involuntary overtime to keep units in service compared to 420 total hours for all of 2019.

The worst-case scenario from the department estimates roughly 100 career firefighters could be separated from the workforce as a result of the vaccine mandate, which Buddle said “would plunge Montgomery County into a public safety crisis.”

Amy Millar, with the UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO union, said the union is “unequivocally pro-vaccination,” but that the proposal is “an assault on our fundamental collective bargaining rights.”

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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