Lewis County Public Utility District Drafting Guidelines for COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate in Response to New OSHA Guidelines

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The Lewis County Public Utility District might soon require its workforce of roughly 134 employees to be either vaccinated against COVID-19 or be subject to weekly testing. 

A vaccine mandate was the topic of Tuesday’s board of commissioners meeting, during which General Manager Chris Roden and staff went over new guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stipulating employers with a workforce of 100 or more must require their employees to provide proof of full vaccination against the viral disease. 

This comes as the country sees historic-high levels of COVID-19 brought on by the more-infectious omicron variant, though guidance had been developed well before discovery of the latest variant. 

Testing for employees who have not received all doses for a primary vaccination will begin Feb. 9, at which point the utility hopes to have all employees who are willing to get the shots inoculated. 

Staff and PUD commissioners say they intend to mitigate any COVID-related firings, and will work with employees to bring them into compliance with the federal mandate. 

“We believe that our COVID protocols of masking and social distancing have been very effective and successful over the past 18-plus months. 

So, despite this federal vaccine mandate, it really is truly our goal that we maintain a safe and healthy workplace, and don’t risk losing any employees due to this mandate,” said Willie Painter, PUD public affairs manager. 

The PUD currently requires mandatory masking and social distancing for all its employees, per state health guidelines. Painter said the utility takes “extra precautions” when dealing with possibly ill employees, and encourages them to stay home when they’re not feeling well. The PUD does have some employees working remotely from home. 

With the onset of omicron, administrative staff at the utility agreed no changes would need to be made to operations at the moment. 

Roden said the utility would bring forward a proposed vaccine mandate that falls in line with OSHA guidelines by the commissioners’ next public meeting, which is Jan. 18. The PUD will continue to offer four hours of paid time off for each primary vaccination series dose, Roden said. 

During the meeting, the commissioners pushed staff to include policy stipulating staff could file for medical or religious exemptions purposes. Commission President Tim Cournyer said that would give employees another avenue in case OSHA removes the option to test in lieu of receiving a vaccine. 

Even with such an exemption, workers would still likely have to be tested. 

“I think the three board members are on the same page, and we want to ensure we’re working as hard as we can so that their positions will be held or available for them,” he told The Chronicle on Tuesday. 

Cournyer said he was confident PUD commissioners and staff would come to a consensus on an agreed policy. 

“I believe it should be an individual’s choice,” Cournyer said. “I’m not against the vaccine and those that want to get it, that’s great. Those that don’t, I also think that’s great. They shouldn’t be required to have it.”

Painter said the utility doesn’t currently have any data on how many PUD workers are vaccinated against COVID-19.