- Luke Eastman
Michael Monte, CEO of the Champlain Housing Trust, knows he's stepping out of the mainstream by requiring the nonprofit's 120 employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But he's so sure it's the right thing to do that he's willing to let employees resign over the issue rather than relax the new rule.
Every eligible person who works at the nonprofit trust, which manages thousands of affordable housing units in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, must have received at least one vaccine dose by July 1. Monte said he decided on the mandate because many of the trust's employees work regularly with the public. He knows of one employee who plans to resign in July rather than get the shot.
"I don't think our position is necessarily something that every business has to take," Monte said. "We feel compelled because of safety."
Millions of people nationally scrambled to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine after they became available in December. Others have been more hesitant or outright resistant to getting the shot. There were months of uncertainty about whether anyone could be compelled, and in what situations.
In early June, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission confirmed that employers can require all workers who physically enter the workplace to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The EEOC didn't say whether its ruling applies to vaccines that are under the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's emergency use authorization, as are all of the COVID-19 vaccines now in use.
The FDA requires six months of data on vaccine use before it can issue full approval.
On June 12, a federal district court in Texas dismissed a case that challenged a hospital's vaccination requirement. That's the first such ruling on the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the National Law Review. More than 150 workers at Houston Methodist subsequently resigned or were fired for not getting vaccinated.
Most Vermont colleges are requiring students to be vaccinated by fall; the University of Vermont said it will require the vaccine when permanent FDA approval is granted.
But it appears few employers have followed suit. Some Vermont employment lawyers said they've received calls questioning the legality of workplace mask requirements since the pandemic began 15 months ago, but they haven't received queries about legal action to avoid vaccination.
Most employers appear to be staying away from a mandate. Even the University of Vermont Health Network has no plans to require vaccines, spokesperson Neal Goswami said.
"Lots of discussions, but I can't point to any company that is mandating it," said Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. "Mostly lots of encouragement, incentives, messaging."
Matt Musgrave, government affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of Vermont, said its members have hosted vaccine clinics, but none is requiring vaccinations.
"I can't tell you how many videos and promotional things Richard and I have put out, with pictures of ourselves getting the shots," Musgrave said, referring to the agency's executive vice president, Richard "Dick" Wobby Jr. "We would recommend paid time off so someone can go and get it done."
It's the duty of employers to keep workers and customers safe, said Tom Nuovo, a Colchester lawyer who handles employment cases. "Thus, mandating a vaccine is in the employer's best interest," Nuovo said. He added that until the vaccine receives full FDA approval, employees might be able to make a valid argument against it. Those who tried and failed in Texas were working for a hospital, he noted, "so there are some additional concerns there."
Even though they're not requiring the vaccination, some employers are keeping track of how many workers have received it. John Thrailkill, who owns Advanced Illumination, a Rochester company that manufactures specialized LED lighting, offered each of his 35 employees $100 to get the shot. Most did, Thrailkill said.
For the rest, "I'm not going to force anyone to take the vaccination," he said, noting that some of his employees are military veterans who were required to get anthrax vaccinations 25 years ago. Some veterans' groups and researchers say those shots caused long-term health problems, though the vaccine did earn FDA approval.
"People are rightfully concerned about it, so we didn't pressure them at all," said Thrailkill. While he did get a COVID-19 vaccine, it was his first shot since early childhood. "I'm not a big vaccine person myself," he said.
States started administering COVID-19 vaccines in December, and researchers and the public are closely watching for any side effects. About 150 million Americans are fully vaccinated. Health authorities, including the Mayo Clinic, say that adverse effects such as serious allergic reactions are rare.
"Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. "COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective."
The Howard Center is encouraging its workers to get vaccinated, said Denise Vignoe, a spokesperson for the Burlington-based nonprofit, which provides substance abuse, mental health and other assistance to the public. A staff poll in February, just two months after vaccinations became available to some Vermonters, showed 90 percent had received a dose or planned to when they became eligible, Vignoe said.
"As for a requirement, that could change if regulatory guidance changes, or there are other changes related to the pandemic," Vignoe said.
Like Thrailkill, Sarah Morris, a manager at the Basin Harbor Club, understands why some of her employees might not get the shot. The club is doing its part to help the effort, though: It hosted a vaccine clinic and offered a free beer to workers who got vaccinated. The Vergennes resort set a goal of having 90 percent of its workers vaccinated, and Morris said she thinks they've reached it.
Two young men Morris works with are declining the vaccine. One has had COVID-19 already. The other feels that if most of the people around him are vaccinated, he doesn't need to be because his age makes him a lower risk for developing serious complications.
"We've talked through it, and I can't completely disagree with him," Morris said of the risk.
The law requires employers to allow for exemptions based on a health condition or religious beliefs, and Champlain Housing Trust is working on those accommodations with some workers, Monte said. As for the worker who plans to leave, "We said, 'OK, we wish you luck, and we'll support you in finding some other work,'" Monte said.
Monte acknowledged that in Vermont's tight job market, employers who demand vaccines are taking a risk that they'll deter good candidates. But he said avoiding infection was more important to him.
"We have a lot of folks who are doing maintenance, who are property managers or who are working at a couple of hotels we're running right now," Monte said. "We are really doing lots of work in the public."
Gov. Phil Scott announced on June 14 that 80 percent of Vermonters 12 and older, the eligible population, had received at least one dose. He lifted all remaining COVID-19-related restrictions and, after 15 months, the state of emergency expired the next day.
At Nuovo's law office, clients are asked whether they're vaccinated. If they're not, meetings are held outdoors, when convenient. But "considering we're at an 80 percent vaccination rate, I've got to believe it's probably not a major issue in Vermont," he said.
Vaccination rates vary in the state. The Vermont Department of Health reports that 84 percent have received at least one dose in Chittenden County; in Essex County, that rate is about 58 percent.
State officials have sent mobile vaccine clinics to workplaces, social events and even outdoor recreation spots. For months, Scott has told Vermonters at his regular press conferences that vaccines save lives.
"Our rate has reduced the number of deaths dramatically," he said in May. "We're not mandating anything. It's your personal choice. But we've been successful, and our numbers show it."