City of Lawrence announces testing requirements for unvaccinated employees; Douglas County to consider similar policy

photo by: Journal-World graphic

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., and the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

The City of Lawrence will soon be requiring its unvaccinated employees to be tested regularly for COVID-19, and Douglas County could soon adopt a similar policy for its employees.

Between the two local governments, such policies would cover more than 1,600 workers.

While these kinds of policies don’t go as far as the vaccine requirements that President Joe Biden recently announced for federal workers, officials with both local governments said their positions were influenced by the high voluntary vaccination rates among their workforce.

City Manager Craig Owens said the city has already verified that 77% of its employees are vaccinated, and that employees continue to turn in vaccination cards and make the decision to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Because of those trends, Owens said the city’s position is that requiring regular testing for unvaccinated employees, coupled with a new leave policy that benefits vaccinated employees, would be enough to increase vaccinations among staff and meet the city’s goals.

“We are getting where we need to be; we’re protecting critical services,” Owens said. “We hope we can get to a much higher vaccination rate, but we’re going in the right direction and we think that this step will be the step it will take for us to get there.”

The city announced its new policy on Friday, and Owens said he saw it as the right step to ensure there were no disruptions to city services, especially amid national labor shortages also affecting the city. Owens said the city has about 890 full-time and 300 to 500 part-time positions, depending on the time of year. In addition to the new testing policy, Owens said the city has reinstated COVID-19 leave for vaccinated employees.

Many months into the pandemic, with the Delta variant of the virus driving a new wave of cases, Owens said the city’s motivation remains the same: “to take care of the people that are doing these critical jobs throughout all of our city departments and their families, so that they will be prepared to respond and take care of our community.”

“And that continues to drive our decision making process here,” Owens said.

Owens said the city’s new leave policy started Friday and would be retroactive to Sept. 12. He said that earlier in the pandemic, before vaccines were available, pandemic leave was available to all employees. He said the COVID-19 leave allows vaccinated city employees to not draw from their regular sick or vacation time if they become sick with COVID-19 or have to quarantine, or if a family member becomes sick or has to quarantine.

The city’s decision follows similar ones across the country. In the wake of full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, Biden announced Sept. 9 that vaccines would be required for all federal workers and contractors, as the Associated Press reported. The order allows for medical or religious exemptions. The announcement is a step up from the previous policy Biden announced on July 29, which required unvaccinated federal workers to undergo regular coronavirus testing. Biden also called for private companies with more than 100 workers to require their employees to get vaccinated or else be subject to weekly testing.

While some states have passed laws pre-empting vaccine mandates for employees, several state and local governments already require their public employees to be vaccinated, while others require regular testing for unvaccinated employees, according to national media reports. Employees of Kansas City, Mo., must be vaccinated or get tested for COVID-19 every 30 days, and employees of Johnson County must be vaccinated or tested weekly, according to reports in the Kansas City Star.

The city’s new testing program for unvaccinated workers is also not the first vaccine-related policy to be announced by a major employer in Lawrence. On Sept. 3, LMH Health President and CEO Russ Johnson announced that vaccination against COVID-19 would be a condition of employment and contract engagement for all employees, staff, volunteers and vendors who work at LMH Health and its health system locations.

As far as the specifics of the city policy go, Owens said that at this point the city was not sure how often unvaccinated employees would be tested, but it could be as often as weekly. Owens said that employees who are experiencing symptoms or who have been exposed to the virus will continue to get tested as needed, regardless of vaccination status, and that he hoped to have the new testing policy for asymptomatic unvaccinated employees implemented in the next 30 days.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the county continues to strongly encourage vaccination for its employees but is not currently mandating that they be vaccinated. Plinsky said the reasons for the county’s position at this time included the high vaccination rate among county employees and potential liability or legal issues related to any type of requirement for public-sector employees.

Plinsky said the county has about 450 regular full-time employees, and about 85% of them are already vaccinated.

“We were really lucky to have such a high percentage of employees voluntarily seek vaccination,” Plinsky said. “And most of our focus has been really on making that happen.”

Plinsky said the county is also considering implementing a testing requirement for unvaccinated employees but has not yet made that decision. She said the county is researching the possibility and would also be looking to the city’s rollout of its testing policy. Plinsky said that county administration had the ability to make that decision on its own, but that she planned to bring the topic to the Douglas County Commission for discussion as well, hopefully within the next 30 days.

“As more and more organizations talk about testing programs, that seems to be something that could be managed pretty easily and something that allows people some choice,” Plinsky said. “… We want to keep our workforce healthy, so having a robust, regular testing program in place is a possible solution to that.”

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