As state worker vaccine compliance rises, threat of suspensions falls

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The number of state employees not in compliance with mandatory vaccinations or weekly testing dropped sharply Tuesday, low enough that it now appears no state workers will face suspension for at least another few days.

A total of 1,200 state employees, or 4 percent of the 30,300 in regular state executive branch agencies, had failed to either document that they had received COVID-19 vaccinations or agree to start weekly testing, as of Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Ned Lamont’s office said. That was down from 2,200 as of late Monday, ahead of the midnight deadline.

Those workers could be suspended without pay immediately under Lamont’s vaccination-or-testing order, and no later than Oct. 11.

State employee unions support the mandate but reiterated their call Tuesday for a 3-week delay in any suspensions because, they said, staff levels are so short and needs are so great that critical services are going unmet and workers face health crises.

Lamont rejected that call for a delay in the suspensions. But spokesman Max Reiss said the administration is going case-by-case through the dwindling list of non-compliant employees. Suspensions would most likely happen only after that step.

“We’re just trying to do everything we can on an individual basis to get our people compliant,” Reiss said. “You wouldn’t expect anything until all this is done. We’re still working actively across all of our agencies to get all our people in compliance. We’re moving pretty well.”

It isn’t likely that all of the 1,200 non-compliant state workers are refusing to be vaccinated or submit to testing. Some may have simply missed the deadline to report. Some may have had trouble with the reporting system, which unions and some workers have called balky.

As of noon on Tuesday 23,600 workers, or 78 percent of the 30,300 at departments such as correction, social services, children and family services and transportation, had shown they are fully vaccinated. Another 5,500, or 18 percent, have agreed to weekly COVID testing, leaving the 4 percent who have not submitted documentation.

Neither the administration nor the unions has provided a breakdown of vaccination and compliance numbers by state agency. Other branches of government, including the court system, the public colleges and universities and the legislature, face similar mandates and have reported similarly low numbers of non-compliant employees.

The Department of Public Health on Tuesday reported a daily COVID positive test rate of 2.52 percent, and a net decrease of four hospitalized patients, bringing that total to 237. The 7-day positivity rate was at 1.9 percent.

While Lamont seems reticent to push workers into a corner on compliance, unionized state employees and union leaders stepped-up their war of words with the governor over the COVID vaccine requirements. In a video call with reporters, they charged that there are already massive staffing shortages resulting in mandatory overtime shifts, particularly in state-owned medical facilities where patient safety could be further compromised.

They underscored what the workers say are sometimes dangerous staffing levels dating as far back as the 2008 recession. Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, facing a series of annual budget crises, eliminated or declined to fill several thousand state employee positions.

Carl Chisem, president of the Connecticut Employees Union Independent SEIU Local 511, said that while union leaders don’t know how many state employees in the executive branch might risk unpaid suspensions by refusing both vaccinations and weekly testing, the unsafe staffing levels put many people at risk.

“Prior to COVID, state agencies were under-funded, under-staffed and will now be at greater risk because of the administration’s implementation of its vaccination and testing mandates,” said Chisem, whose bargaining unit represents about 3,600 employees, including 1,500 road maintenance workers in the Department of Transportation. “Putting this on the members just burdens the safety of our staff and clients in various areas as well.”

“State workers across all agencies showed up every day during the global pandemic,” Chisem told reporters during an hour-long online news conference. “Services, education, mental health, custodial or the countless lives our nurses and aides saved during the pandemic. They continued to work and provide vital services to people of Connecticut. They did this when there was no [personal protective equipment] or vaccinations. They did this even without pandemic hazard pay.”

Damien Nuzzo, a nurse-clinical instructor at the Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH), said the staffing shortages are chronic across a variety of the state’s social service agencies, including the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. He said that CVH workers are routinely ordered to work double shifts.

Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199 New England, the largest health care workers union, said the workforce is more than 20 percent smaller than it was at the start of the Great Recession. “There’s been a 32-percent reduction in the state’s public-sector health care work force,” he said. The addiction program at CVH is running at 30 percent because of a staffing shortage, Baril said.

Union leaders and the umbrella State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition, which is negotiating with the Lamont administration over issues related to the vaccine rules, are encouraging workers to get inoculated. But Baril and Chisem said workers are discouraged, which explains how they can support the mandate while opposing suspensions.

“They are burned-out,” Baril said. “They are exhausted. They are frustrated. They understand that their own health has been compromised; that the outcomes for their patients and clients have been compromised. These are the folks who’ve made the sacrifice to stay on the front lines...So even the idea of folks who have not been vaccinated being removed from the workforce at a time when staffing is already at crisis levels, is an idea that can lead to disastrous outcomes for workers and patients.”

Lamont admitted Monday that he considers suspending workers without pay a difficult step he doesn’t want to take. So although the deadline to file worker status was midnight Monday, he’s not pushing the issue.

Chisem said he has seen firsthand some of the problems encountered by workers trying to report their status. Brian Williams, a certified addiction counselor at CVH, said some workers say they have tried to reply via email and fax, only to be told they are out of compliance. There is also a system to upload proof of vaccination.

In response to charges about the staff shortages, Reiss, the governor’s communications director, said about 1,500 employees have been hired by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services over the last three years.

“The administration has taken aggressive steps to expedite hiring at agencies, especially those who work directly with patients,” Reiss said. “As a matter of fact, our administration has hired more people at DMHAS in a single year than any other administration on record. Additionally, fingerprinting and background checks have been accelerated for these roles, as we work to get people on the job sooner.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT