BELFAST — City councilors discussed the idea of implementing a vaccination requirement for new city hires Dec.  21. It is likely that the city will have to enforce a federal vaccine requirement for employers with more than 100 employees regardless.

Councilor Mike Hurley said he was uncomfortable hiring anyone who is not vaccinated against COVID-19. He did not want to put someone in a city office who could endanger current staff or residents. “It’s just unfortunate how this has spun out,” he said. “It’s pretty much clear now that this anti-vaccination … is pretty much an identity, a political identity badge.”

Councilor Brenda Bonneville said the city should not act arbitrarily by implementing a vaccine requirement for new hires but not current employees. She would like all employees to be vaccinated.

“If we’re going to take this seriously, which we should, and this is changing and it’s morphing and it’s dangerous and it’s no joke,” she said. “I mean, really, I will just say my preference would have everyone vaccinated.”

City Manager Erin Herbig said 91.8% of city employees are vaccinated. She believes many city employees have received booster shots, but does not know exactly how many. Between 141 and 146 people receive weekly checks from the city, so it would fall under the federal rule that employers with more than 100 employees must require them to be vaccinated or take a weekly COVID test.

The city has had 12 employees test positive for COVID-19 and does not have any evidence of virus spread among employees, she said. City Hall has never had more than two positive cases among employees at one time. She contacts people who might have interacted with an employee who tests positive for the virus. The city has several sanitization protocols to curb spread as well.

Legally, the city can require its staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19, city attorney Kristen Collins said. She thinks municipalities have faced difficulties with labor shortages similar to those with which private industry has struggled and are waiting to see if the federal vaccine mandate on employers will be enacted.

Collins said in an email to city staff that if the city were to enact a policy where similarly situated people are treated differently, there must be a reason for it. If the city creates such a policy, it must make clear how the policy will help improve employee and public health and explain why it applies only to new hires. The policy cannot be arbitrary.

In the email, she suggested that the city use other methods to encourage new hires to get vaccinated, like a hiring bonus for vaccinated applicants and extra benefits for current employees who are vaccinated. She does not know of any other towns that have enacted a vaccine mandate for employees.

Collins said the OSHA standard that the federal government is implementing for employers with over 100 employees takes effect Jan. 4, 2022, but OSHA will not enforce the mandate until Jan. 10 and will start enforcing the testing requirement in late February 2022.

An employee can choose not to be vaccinated under the federal mandate, but must submit to weekly testing. A statewide vaccine mandate for health care workers has been in place for several weeks.

Collins said there is still a lot of confusion regarding the federal mandate and she is still waiting for the state to adopt rules and guidance for how it will be implemented. She advised the council to operate as if the federal mandate applied and start developing a plan to implement it.

Councilor Paul Dean asked Herbig if transactions in the City Clerk’s Office can be done online. Herbig said most can be done online with new software the city bought after the pandemic hit.

The City Clerk’s, Tax and General Assistance offices are closed to in-person meetings during the week of Monday, Dec. 27, through the end of the year. The offices will reopen Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, to in-person meetings during regular business hours. For more information, visit the city website.