Lamont issues vaccine order for state workers, school staff

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — State employees, K-12 teachers and other school staff, and early childhood workers will have to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing under a new state policy announced Thursday.

Gov. Ned Lamont issued an emergency order Thursday that institutes the vaccination-or-testing requirements effective Sept. 27. Medical and religious exemptions will be allowed.

Under the governor’s order, covered state employees, public and private school staff, and early childhood workers who have not received at least one vaccine dose on the effective date must submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

Two weeks ago, Lamont ordered that workers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities get vaccinated with at least one dose by Sept. 7. There is no testing alternative.

The governor and top administration officials laid out the latest coronavirus-related directives during a virtual news briefing on Thursday afternoon.

“Look, I’m not eager to do this. We’re doing everything we can to keep us safe,” Lamont said.

State employee unions acknowledged management’s right to mandate vaccinations, but the State Employee Bargaining Agents Coalition demanded the Lamont administration immediately open required impact bargaining negotiations on details and implications of the announced vaccination policy.

“We recognize that under state and federal law, the employer has the right to create such mandates, subject to the duty to bargain its impact on employees, and we will continue to fight for safety in the workplace and the rights of each and every individual employee,” SEBAC said in a statement.

Paul Mounds Jr., the governor’s chief of staff, said the administration will be negotiating matters relating to how vaccination policy affects working conditions with SEBAC. Subjects for negotiations will include how the testing process will work, documentation requirements, and procedures for disciplining workers who refuse to comply, said Josh Geballe, administration’s chief operating officer.

The Connecticut Education Association said the governor’s order allowing a testing opt-out is a reasonable accommodation. The CEA is the largest of the state’s two unions representing teachers and other educators.

“We want to ensure that the state assists school districts in providing the time and resources necessary to meet the vaccine mandate and testing requirements. That means a deadline that can be met by all districts, and the clinics and supplies necessary to get the job done,” CEA President Kate Dias said in a statement.

Lamont and members of his leadership team were unable to provide figures Thursday on vaccination rates for the state workforce and school staff, but suggested large percentages have been vaccinated based on statewide numbers.

At this time, 74% of the state’s vaccine-eligible population over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated, and 78.5% of adults age 18 and older are fully vaccinated. More than 2.2 million state residents are fully vaccinated, and more than 2.4 million have received at least one dose.

Lamont cited an estimate from the state Department of Education that three-quarters of teachers have been vaccinated.

“We don’t have any precise numbers on how many state employees are currently vaccinated,” said Geballe, who doubles as the state commissioner of administrative services. “We’ll obviously get that information over the next couple of weeks through this process.”

Only executive branch employees are covered under the vaccination policy announced Thursday because Lamont has no authority over the legislative and judicial branches in this regard.

Lamont and aides said Chief Justice Richard Robinson advised that judicial officials plan to follow the administration’s vaccination-or-testing policy for judicial workers. SEBAC said the same rules would apply to both executive and Judicial Department employees.

It was also reported Thursday that General Assembly leaders are considering a similar vaccination-or-testing requirement for legislative branch employees.

Geballe said any executive branch employees who refuse to be vaccinated or tested will not be permitted at their work sites, and resulting discipline will depend on the worker’s contract and the upcoming negotiations between the administration and the unions. He said school staff and the child care workers will face a similar scenario.

The policy will allow state workers who do not wish to be vaccinated to seek exemptions either for medical reasons or their religious beliefs. Exempted workers will be subject to weekly testing. The testing option will be unavailable to state hospital employees unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption.

Employees who seek an exemption and opt for the weekly testing alternative may be required to pay for the testing, depending on their health insurance and work contract. At the moment, the state employee health care plan does not cover asymptomatic testing, meaning workers who opted against vaccination would have to pay testing costs. Geballe said that could change during collective bargaining.

“Go get vaccinated if you haven’t been vaccinated,” Lamont said. “Obviously there’s a religious exemption, there’s a health exemption — a medical exemption as needed — and finally, if you’re not confident yet, you can test out. Use one of our testing facilities on a weekly basis and show you’ve been tested. That’s a lousy solution. The best solution is for everybody to get vaccinated. The vaccines work. They’re safe.”