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COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses draws praise in Connecticut, but sparks questions and concerns

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 9/10/2021 Kenneth R. Gosselin, Hartford Courant

A mandate by President Joe Biden that larger businesses require their employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 was generally applauded by businesses and the medical community in Connecticut as a way to jump-start the fight against the coronavirus, get economic recovery back on track and save lives.

“A bold move was needed because we need everyone to be vaccinated,” said Chris DiPentima, president and chief executive of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, the state’s largest business lobbying group. “We need to get everyone vaccinated. It’s the best way of defeating the pandemic and starting our economic recovery.”

But questions and concerns surfaced quickly among employers in Connecticut, with CBIA flooded with emails and calls on issues ranging from verification and discipline to enforcement. It was also unclear whether the mandate would apply to remote workers or only those working in person.

At Manchester-based engineering and consulting firm Fuss & O’Neill Inc., chief executive Kevin Grigg said he has strongly encouraged his 300 employees to get vaccinated, but he has stopped short of a mandate. Grigg said he will probably wait it out until there is a shakeout of any legal challenges to the new rule to move forward.

“We’re just at the beginning of this whole thing,” Grigg said. “My crystal ball is no better than yours, so I think we’re just going to have to see how this all plays out.”

Biden Thursday announced a sweeping plan to jump-start vaccinations across the U.S., where 30% of Americans do not have at least one shot. Central to the plan was a mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, a move affecting 80 million Americans.

Biden’s mandate puts businesses squarely in the middle between the government and employers, including stiff penalties of $14,000 per violation for businesses. The rules for the private sector mandate must still be written by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and it was unclear when they might go into effect.

Many questions

One of the biggest questions, the CBIA’s DiPentima said, focused on how to confirm an employee had been vaccinated, especially since there had been instances of vaccination card fraud.

“Is there access to some government site where the hospital and health care providers are putting in the people who have been vaccinated?” DiPentima said. “Businesses haven’t had access to something like that.”

Other members of the lobbying group raised concerns about how to enforce a mandate, DiPentima said, wondering whether employees would have to be fired or simply suspended if they refused the vaccine. The concerns come as employers also are navigating changes in the workplace overall tied to the pandemic, which has brought a dramatic shift toward working at home.

It is possible the federal vaccination mandate, which is certain to face legal challenges, could include remote workers, although that will not be clear until the actual vaccination rule is written by federal authorities, the White House told multiple news outlets, including Newsweek.

Two major employers in the Hartford area, CVS Health Corp., which owns Hartford-based health insurer Aetna Inc., and New Britain-based Stanley Black & Decker Inc., the tool and storage equipment giant, said Friday they would make decisions after studying the new rules. But both companies noted they have already taken partial steps to requiring employee vaccinations, with CVS making vaccination mandatory for its “frontline” workers.

“We’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to vaccinations for our employees, announcing a requirement in August that impacts many of our 300,000 colleagues,” CVS said in a post on its website. Aetna employs about 5,000 in Connecticut, the majority in the Hartford area.

At Stanley Black & Decker, which has a workforce of 2,000 in Connecticut — half in the office and half in manufacturing and distribution — office workers already have been told they would be required to be vaccinated if they wanted to enter the workplace, spokeswoman Shannon Lapierre said.


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The Hartford Financial Services Group, which employs 6,100 in Connecticut and thousands in Hartford, said it is waiting for guidance on how the new rules will apply to the insurer, with the health and safety of its workers the top priority.

Middletown-based Liberty Bank, which has a workforce of 700, said it announced to employees Thursday prior to the Biden speech that vaccinations will now be required to keep customers and workers safe.

“We didn’t wait for the government to mandate it because we knew requiring vaccinations as a term of employment at Liberty Bank is the right decision at the right time,” David W. Glidden, the bank’s president and chief executive, said.

‘People are dying’

As employers sort out the implications of the mandate, medical experts praised Biden for a significant step forward in the fight against the coronavirus.

Dr. Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease specialist at Hartford HealthCare, said Friday he considers Biden’s new vaccine mandates “a great first step.”

“We are at this point where he has to make a speech or he has to make a mandate because people are dying,” Wu said. “Because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

As of Thursday, 85.3% of eligible Connecticut residents had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, while 76.6% were fully vaccinated, making Connecticut one of the most vaccinated states in the country.

Still, Wu said every marginal increase in vaccination rate leaves the state less susceptible to another coronavirus surge, while protecting individuals from the devastating personal effects of COVID-19.

Dr. David Banach, an epidemiologist at UConn Health, said even if increasing Connecticut’s vaccination rate won’t entirely prevent future outbreaks, it will mitigate their impact. During the recent nationwide delta variant surge, Connecticut has experienced fewer COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations than most other states, likely due in part to the large share of its population that is vaccinated.

“Any opportunity to increase vaccination coverage is going to have some incremental benefit,” Banach said. “We are seeing individuals who are unvaccinated hospitalized and becoming ill, and any opportunity to prevent that from happening is going to be important.”

Mark Masselli, president and CEO of Community Health Center Inc., said he supports Biden’s new approach and worries only that the president “didn’t go far enough.” Masselli proposed, for example, a vaccine requirement for ridership on buses and airplanes.

“In not doing it, what are we losing? Fifteen-hundred people a day,” he said. “We simply have to get to these unvaccinated people, and there are lots of levers, and they should pull them all at once.”

Legal cover for employers

In recent weeks, businesses across Connecticut have been debating internally whether or not to require vaccinations, with businesses taking into account federal approval of the Pfizer vaccine — addressing the safety concern expressed by some reluctant to get the shot — and weighing the potential for lawsuits from employees not wanting to get the vaccine. The vaccine debate also has been sharply divided along political lines.

However, momentum has been building in the business community nationally for mandatory vaccination for weeks as several high-profile employers — United Airlines, Disney and Fox News, among them — announced that they had put in place the requirement.

A nationwide survey of 961 employers by Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm Willis Towers Watson released this month indicated that the number of businesses requiring vaccination is expected to surge by the end of year. More than half of employers could have one or more vaccine mandate requirements, ranging from access to common areas such as cafeterias to portions of a workforce or all employees. The survey’s results were up dramatically from 21% in the spring.

In Connecticut, a CBIA survey in July found the 625 respondents split on whether there should be government vaccine mandates. Of those taking the survey, 52% favored them, 37% opposed them and 11% were unsure, DiPentima said.

David Cadden, professor emeritus of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, said the mandate will likely tip employers who were on the fence toward requiring vaccination.

“That gives them the ability to say, ‘It’s not just us. It’s the federal government that is doing this,’ and hope the employees who are recalcitrant about getting the vaccine will focus their ire at the federal government, rather than the company itself,” Cadden said.

Biden’s Republican opponents — including governors in red states — are threatening to file a flurry of lawsuits that would argue the mandate is an overreach of federal authority and unconstitutional, according to multiple news reports.

Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at kgosselin@courant.com. Contact Alex Putterman at aputterman@courant.com.

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