Upper Valley employers watching Biden’s new vaccination, testing mandate closely

  • President Joe Biden speaks about combating the coronavirus pandemic, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/TNS) Kevin Dietsch

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 9/11/2021 10:06:54 PM
Modified: 9/11/2021 10:06:54 PM

WEST LEBANON — Upper Valley employers are weighing what President Joe Biden’s sweeping mandate for employers to require vaccination or testing for workers means for them, with several saying they are waiting for details of the plan.

Reacting to a resurgence in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations around the country due to the spread of the delta variant, Biden on Thursday ordered businesses with more than 100 employees to require employees to be vaccinated or have them tested weekly for the virus.

“We’re going to discuss it at our senior leadership meeting next week, and it’s too early for me to comment beyond that,” said Kathy Tempesta, vice president of human resources at Nolato GW, which employs about 400 people at two plants in Bethel and Royalton.

The company, formerly known as GW Plastics until its sale to Swedish company Nolato last year, currently asks unvaccinated employees to wear a face mask but, like many businesses, has not required workers to be vaccinated.

The Upper Valley’s two biggest employers, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health and Dartmouth College, already require employees to be vaccinated. The college was the first, announcing its mandate in June, to become effective Sept. 1, and D-H announced its mandate in August, with a jab deadline at the end of this month.

But other employers said they are still waiting on specific protocols from federal regulators in order to comply with Biden’s pronouncement.

Hypertherm, the biggest manufacturer in the Upper Valley with 1,150 employees at locations in Hanover and Lebanon, said that as Biden’s employer mandate amounts to “new guidance” from the government it was still learning details about the plan.

“The directive is to be administered through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and OSHA has not yet turned the directive into specific guidance/requirements and administrative details,” Hypertherm CEO Evan Smith said via email, which he added “could also very well be held up by court challenges/injunctions.”

Still, although Hypertherm has not required employees be vaccinated, the company requires all workers regardless of status to wear a mask while working indoors or traveling on business. (Fully vaccinated employees may remove their masks when sitting or standing at their desks and in common areas provided they social distance 6 feet.)

Smith, despite no requirement for employees to disclose whether they’ve been vaccinated, said the company believes its vaccination rate is “relatively high” given its effort to educate the workforce and establishing “multiple successful on-site clinics” at Hypertherm’s facilities.

Smith, however, said it is “hard to say” what impact a vaccination mandate might have on the company’s ability to attract workers. He said that, because of Hypertherm’s status as a “preferred employer” and “enhanced starting packages” it has been able to meet hiring goals during the pandemic even with a “business upsurge.”

“To the extent that we compete in the employment market with smaller employers unaffected by the mandate, and to the extent that we might be required to implement mandatory vaccination status disclosure and weekly testing for the unvaccinated, that could be a deterrent for some,” he said.

At the Monroe, N.H., egg processing facility of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs in northern Grafton County, which employs about 115 people, chief executive Erik Drake said the company has set up clinics and been offering $100 incentive pay for employees to get both shots but hasn’t been requiring vaccinations.

Drake estimates that two-thirds of Pete and Gerry’s total workforce of 275 — the company had a second processing facility in Pennsylvania and a 10-person corporate staff at Centerra in Lebanon — are vaccinated and the company continues to promote the benefits of vaccination.

He acknowledged that an employer mandate might keep some potential employees from applying for jobs — “it is New Hampshire,” he said.

But it also “could cut both ways”; with a vaccination mandate in place “they may see it as a safer place to work,” Drake said.

Like Dartmouth and D-H, at least one other major Upper Valley employer isn’t waiting for the government’s cue to require vaccination.

“We were excited to hear about the president’s mandate, to be honest,” said Samantha Pause, chief marketing officer at Mascoma Bank in Lebanon, describing Biden’s order as “spot on.”

Mascoma last week told the bank’s 365 employees that effective this Wednesday everyone will have to have at least their first vaccination shot or be tested weekly if they’re unvaccinated.

The bank estimates that, based on internal surveys, 82% of its workforce is at least partially vaccinated, Pause said.

“We realize there are some people uncomfortable” with vaccination, she explained, “so they still have the choice but will have to submit to testing.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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