Town employees, contractors and members of Leesburg’s boards and commissions will likely need to line up for shots in arms, or they may be looking at pink slips.
Following a Monday night work session discussion, the Town Council appears poised to adopt a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its 520 full- and part-time employees, along with contractors working in town facilities or alongside town employees or the public. Should the council carry forward its expressed wishes from Monday night, the mandate would even apply to those who are appointed to its 13 boards and commissions.
With a vote expected Tuesday evening, the council is eying a 90-day deadline for employees, contractors and board and commission members to comply with the mandate. Exemptions for religious or medical reasons will be considered by the town’s Human Resources Department, and only those exempted will be eligible for town-paid COVID-19 testing.
Council members discussed a weekly testing requirement in lieu of vaccine mandate, but cited the high projected costs as a primary reason not to provide that option. While the town staff has not been formally polled on how many have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Human Resources Director Joshua Didawick said his staff is estimating that at least 60% of the town’s workforce is, based on early indications and community vaccination rates both locally as well as where employees live. If the 60% vaccination rate is accurate, weekly COVID testing for the remaining 40% of the workforce could result in a weekly tab to the town of $21,600 to $32,400, or upwards of $100,000 monthly, Didawick said.
Allowing employees the option to seek testing on their own and provide results to the town could raise logistical challenges as well as questions of testing validity, he added.
Council members in support of the vaccine mandate pointed to others who have already enacted one, including the state and federal governments, the U.S. military, and even private companies. Several local governments, including Arlington and Fairfax counties, have also enacted vaccine mandates for its employees with an option for weekly testing. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors enacted its own vaccine mandate last week with the option for weekly testing, but a timetable for county employee compliance has not yet been established.
Town Manager Kaj Dentler said the same conversation occurring at the council dais Monday night was one shared by local governments region-wide, even those whose elected bodies have not indicated a desire to move forward with a vaccine mandate. They all share a concern voiced by several council members Monday that a vaccine mandate could mean losing employees, he said.
Councilwoman Kari Nacy questioned what impact it could have on the town if a department lost a large number of employees who decided to leave town employ rather than get vaccinated. She also pointed to the competitive job market and higher compensation and benefits offered in neighboring jurisdictions as cause for concern.
“I firmly believe [getting vaccinated] should be a personal choice based on your own status in life,” she said.
Councilwoman Suzanne Fox also questioned the legality of such a mandate, with Town Attorney Christopher Spera pointing to both the U.S. and state Supreme Court precedent in saying a mandate would be legally defensible.
Regarding religious and medical exemptions, Didawick said considering such exemptions is an “interactive process” between his department and an employee, similar to how ADA accommodations are considered.
“We have to be consistent in our application and be able to defend any decision we make,” he said.
Fox and Nacy were the only council members not to voice support for a vaccine mandate. Fox pointed to the current Delta variant, with which a percentage of those vaccinated against COVID-19 have been getting and spreading COVID-19.
“I’m of the mind we can trust our employees as adults to make decisions and take proper precautions, or we can enact something that’s a one-size-fits-all because other people have done it,” she said.
Those who fell on the side of supporting the vaccine mandate, however, said they believed it was in the best interest of public health and safety for both employees and the general public.
“To me the most important thing that we do as a council is the public safety,” Mayor Kelly Burk said. “We have a disease that has killed over 700,000 people in the U.S. We can’t sit back and ignore it. We are sitting here in masks because of it. How irresponsible it would be for us to say we’re not going to do anything.”
A series of non-binding straw votes indicated council support for town-paid weekly testing only for those employees who receive medical or religious exemptions for not getting vaccinated, but not an option to offer the testing option in lieu of getting vaccinated for those without exemptions.
Vice Mayor Marty Martinez also indicated support for a vaccine mandate for Town Council members, though Spera acknowledged that refusing a vaccine was not a statutory basis for removing an elected official. No other council members supported that requirement.