BELFAST — After the recent Supreme Court decision blocking the Biden administration’s rule that large companies must require staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly, two sizeable employers in Waldo County continue to suggest inoculation against the virus to their employees, but do not require it.

Rob Julavits, executive director of external communications at athenahealth, said in a prepared statement that his company is “encouraging all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Athenahealth in Belfast. Source: Facebook

He went on to say, “We will provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees and applicants with medical conditions, disabilities and sincerely held religious beliefs or practices.

“As we make plans to return to the office and continue to address the evolving nature of the pandemic, any decisions that we make will be focused on protecting the health and safety of our employees, customers and communities.”

Julia Ehrenfeld, vice president of media relations at Bank of America, said the company continues to “educate … employees on the health and safety guidelines from medical experts and health officials.”

While Bank of America does not have a vaccine/booster mandate, she said, it strongly encourages all employees to get fully vaccinated, including getting boosted, and informing the company of their status. 

Recently, Ehrenfeld said, Bank of America announced it will donate $100 to local food banks for every U.S. employee who either informs the company of their booster status or gets boosted by the end of January.

Bank of America, in Belfast. Source: Facebook

The federal mandate would have forced employers with 100 or more employees to require their staff to either get vaccinated or test for COVID-19 weekly in addition to wearing a mask. 

According to the Maine Department of Labor, the Supreme Court ruling would also apply to public sector employers, including state and local governments, public school districts, the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System, Maine Maritime Academy, the Maine Turnpike Authority, and sewer and water districts.

Vaccination of staff at schools has been an ongoing discussion at board meetings across the county. When The Republican Journal asked area superintendents if districts were considering adopting their own vaccination requirements, Mary Alice McLean, the only superintendent who replied, said Regional School Unit 71 does not have plans to require employees to test weekly or “become inoculated from COVID-19.”

In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority concluded the administration overstepped its authority in a move that would affect tens of millions of people. The Secretary of Labor, acting through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, announced the Emergency Temporary Standard in November of last year. 

Many states, businesses and nonprofit organizations challenged OSHA’s rule in appeals courts across the country. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals initially entered a stay, but when the cases were consolidated before the Sixth Circuit, that court lifted the stay. Emergency appeals were then  filed with the Supreme Court. 

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a prepared statement the ruling was “a major setback to the health and safety of workers across the country.” Walsh said the standard is based on science and data that show the effectiveness of vaccines against the spread of coronavirus and “the grave danger faced by unvaccinated workers.”

“Regardless of the ultimate outcome of these proceedings,” he said, “OSHA will do everything in its existing authority to hold businesses accountable for protecting workers…”

The court’s decision, he said, does not prevent employers from implementing their own vaccinate-or -test policies. In other counties in Maine, it remains unclear whether employers will choose to implement such policies, given the statewide staffing shortages affecting a number of industries.

Scott Ogden, spokesman for Gov. Janet Mills, said the governor is not considering additional state requirements and is calling on all people in positions of leadership to “join her in urging folks to step up and get vaccinated.”

“COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective,” he said in a prepared statement, “and the Governor is grateful that Maine is the third-most fully vaccinated state in the nation. The Governor joins health care professionals across Maine in strongly urging all eligible Maine people to get vaccinated to protect their health and potentially save their lives.”

More than 80 million people would have been affected by the rule, which OSHA estimated would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.

In a separate ruling, the court allowed the government to require health care providers at institutions that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless exempt for medical or religious reasons. 

The ruling comes after Maine’s Emergency Rule set forth by Gov. Mills in September 2021 requiring health care workers to be fully vaccinated by the end of October 2021.