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Some Maine businesses applaud SCOTUS decision to halt Biden administration's vaccine mandate

Virus Outbreak Maine
Robert F. Bukaty
A vial of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination is prepared for use at a COVID-19 clinic at the Augusta Armory, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

Some large employers in Maine are applauding yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court decision to halt the Biden administration's mandate of COVID-19 vaccines or weekly testing for companies with more than 100 employees.

A host of business groups challenged the emergency OSHA rule, arguing that it overstepped the agency's authority to regulate work-related dangers. The court's majority agreed, and also indicated that the measure risked inequities because it applied only to companies with 100 or more workers.

"We were concerned that especially our larger members who are over the threshold of 100 workers would face pretty significant shortfalls at a time when they are already struggling to recruit people," said Matt Marks, CEO of the Maine chapter of the Associated Contractors of America, which was one of the plaintiffs in the case. He said the association encourages vaccination, but the mandate could have created nonsensical situations in the construction industry, such as when large and small firms are working the same job site.

"Those folks are regulated and required to be vaccinated, meanwhile the subcontractors, who may even have more people on site wouldn't be," Marks said.

Policies vary at Maine's largest employers, and may reflect a business' need for hands-on versus remote work. Bar Harbor's Jackson Laboratory, where some 1,800 workers develop, raise and market genetically engineered mice for scientific use, including COVIS research, just last week stiffened its policies to require all on-site workers to be vaccinated — ending a previous policy that allowed periodic testing as a substitute.

"I think it was a combination of wanting to get a higher number of vaccinated," said Katie Longley, the lab's chief operating officer. "We're really fortunate that about 84% of our employees are already vaccinated, so we wanted to have a higher number of vaccinations that we didn't have with the voluntary policy, and the rising number of cases. We saw a significant increase in cases starting in December."

Longley said the company has received legal advice that the Supreme Court decision does not bar more stringent policies. And she noted that the Lab is providing on-site vaccines for workers.

And it appears that a hodgepodge of policies at large companies will continue, now that the OSHA mandate has been stayed.

At Portland law firm Preti Flaherty, with more than 200 workers in New England, a policy requiring disclosure of vaccine status and periodic testing for unvaccinated workers remains in place.

Chief Operating officer Rachel Lawrence said voluntary staff vaccination rates are higher than 90%. That allows the firm to give some flexibility to unvaccinated staff, she said, and to retain them.

"We're mindful of the current employment market, we value or personnel regardless of their personal vaccination decisions," Lawrence said.

At WEX, a payment processing company with 1,200 workers in Maine and thousands more elsewhere, vaccinations are required for in-office work, business travel or when dealing in-person with the public. But the company also encourages remote work.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.