GOULDSBORO — Should town employees risk losing workers’ compensation benefits if they opt not to be vaccinated and test positive for COVID-19? Must they sign waivers before traveling out of state, and self-quarantine unpaid for 10 days, if they come down with the coronavirus before their return? Should they lose their job or be suspended without pay if they fail to mask and socially distance when away from their workspace after repeated warnings?
These are possible rules, as part of a COVID-19 policy, that the Gouldsboro Board of Selectmen has wrestled with since the federal Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expired Dec. 31, 2020. Under that law, both part-time and full-time employees catching the virus were entitled to paid emergency sick leave for two weeks and continued health insurance. They qualified for the emergency leave if ordered or advised to self-quarantine due to virus-related concerns or were experiencing symptoms and awaiting medical diagnosis. Caring for a child whose school or daycare had closed or for an individual who was required to isolate were among other qualifying circumstances.
Since the federal law’s expiration, selectmen have pondered what protocols to continue following or adopt in order to manage the town’s 32 full- and part-time employees. They recognize that first responders, such as police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, cannot always keep a prescribed physical distance in emergencies and that close physical contact often goes with the jobs. They have discussed that some personnel may elect not to be vaccinated due to medical conditions such as pregnancy and certain disabilities.
To get guidance, Town Manager Andrea Sirois attended the Maine Municipal Association’s “HR in the Age of COVID” training session on Jan. 26. The two-hour online workshop covered many issues from how to handle COVID exposure to whether to require vaccination. She drew up a draft COVID-19 policy that was reviewed and approved by town attorney Dan Pileggi of Acadia Law Group in Ellsworth.
Under that preliminary version, for one time only, employees would continue to qualify for a paid, 80-hour leave for COVID-19-related circumstances. An employee who already had used the paid time off due to the virus would not be eligible another time. Employees planning personal out-of-state travel would have to sign a waiver requiring them to be tested for COVID within 72 hours before their return to Maine and test negative. If they tested positive, they would have to quarantine at their own expense and test negative before returning to work. Employees, who fail to wear a mask and social distance away from their work station first would be warned verbally. A written warning, five-day suspension without pay and termination would follow for four offenses total.
Gouldsboro Code Enforcement Officer Jim McLean, who also is the town’s infrastructure superintendent, took offense at the draft policy discussed by selectmen at their March 4 meeting.
“This is Gouldsboro. This is not Boston, not Portland,” he told the board. “This is very impersonal from an employee’s point of view. It’s very un-employee-friendly as far as I am concerned.”
Selectman Cheryl Robinson, who works as town clerk in Hancock, says Hancock has a COVID-19 policy in place, but it is not as stringent or extensive.
“You’ve got to be able to address them [issues] consistently,” she cautioned fellow selectmen.
Other selectmen found the draft rules too harsh and punitive.
“Andrea [Sirois] has put a lot of work into this and her heart is in the right place,” Board Chairman Dana Rice concluded, saying Gouldsboro’s policy did not have to be “quite so rigid.”
Rice sent the town manager back to the drawing board and directed her to consult other Maine towns about what protocol they follow.
Sirois says the Maine Municipal Association attorney and labor law experts conducting the January workshop recommended Maine towns adopt a COVID policy, but she said they did not tout specific rules. She says having a protocol in place ensures town personnel are treated consistently and makes it clear to the public about how the town is being run amid an evolving global pandemic.
“COVID, as a whole, has made it hard to manage,” she said Tuesday. “There are just so many unknowns.”