By SHERRY HALBROOK

PEF held a telephone town hall on October 14 to update members on the many issues resulting from New York State’s vaccine-or-test mandate.  Several of the union’s top staff members answered questions they have received from members.  A recording of the event is available here.

The most important thing for everyone to remember, PEF President Wayne Spence said, is that the greatest danger is from the potentially divisive effect the issue can have.

“I see members being pitted against each other,” Spence said, referring to individual members’ opinions about whether everyone should be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, or not.  Letting different opinions on this issue turn members against each other is not acceptable and will weaken the union’s ultimate ability to represent every member and protect their legal and contractual rights.  “We have more in common than in division over this issue,” he said.

The union sent a survey to every member to garner their opinions on vaccinations and testing for the virus.

“Your voice matters.  We need to weigh the opinions and insights of every member, so please respond quickly,” Spence said.  Ultimately, PEF cannot dictate state policy on vaccinations and testing, but it has a duty under the PS&T contract and the PEF Constitution to represent all of its members in negotiating how the state’s actions may affect them.

PEF Director of Contract Administration Debra Greenberg recommended that members who are required to be tested weekly for COVID-19 consider ordering kits for at-home testing.  They can take a test with them to work to use it.  That will eliminate the need to leave work and go somewhere else to be tested.  The member following this method should register and order the kit, take it to work, use it and mail in their swab or saliva sample to the testing company.  When they receive the results, they should upload them to the state’s portal.

If you take the test at home, you will not be paid for the time you spend on testing and mailing the sample.  However, Greenberg said you should report the time on your timesheet.  “If it is rejected, comply, save the report and rejection and send it to your PEF field representative,” she said.

Meanwhile, Greenberg said she is talking to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations about letting employees use their agency mailrooms to send in their test samples.

“Make a good faith effort to comply with the testing requirement.  Do everything as soon as possible to comply,” Greenberg advised.

PEF Director of Health and Safety Geraldine Stella told members to check the COVID-19 information that is posted and frequently updated at PEF.org/covid-19.

Stella said that while every New York county is at either high risk or extremely high risk for infection based on their current numbers of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths, members should be heartened to know that these numbers are going down and the vaccines are working well against the highly contagious Delta variant.  She added that the drug company Merck has developed an anti-viral drug to treat COVID-19 infections and has applied to the federal Food and Drug Administration for its approval.

Stella further reported that testing is becoming more sensitive and accurate, as well as less invasive.  Members have asked if nasal swabs sterilized with ethylene oxide are dangerous, Stella said, and the answer is no.  Swabs contain only a minimal trace of the chemical if any at all.

The best way to protect employees and members of the public is to take a layered approach that includes measures such as cleaning, air filtration and high fresh-air exchange rates, masking, hand washing, social distancing, and testing even the people who have been vaccinated.

The group at highest risk of becoming infected and transmitting the virus to others are those who have not been vaccinated against it, Stella said.  In fact, 95 percent of new infections are in unvaccinated people, and they are 29 times more likely to transmit it to others.

Even if you have had COVID, you can still benefit greatly from being vaccinated, Stella said.  Researchers have not yet been able to nail down how long any immunity you have from surviving an earlier infection will last.  “Vaccines provide better protection,” Stella said.

If you have had COVID in the past and are vaccinated now, you might get a strong immune response to the vaccination.  “You might feel worse, but you will get stronger protection,” she said.

Members who have doubts about the advisability of being vaccinated should talk to their personal medical doctor about their concerns, Stella said.

PEF General Counsel Edward Greene reviewed the various statutes that relate to issues associated with the vaccine and testing mandates and any injury that might result.  Challenges to such mandates recently were dismissed as frivolous by a judge.  The US Supreme Court has denied requests for it to review such decisions.

If you sincerely believe that COVID vaccination is against your religious beliefs, you should apply immediately for a religious exemption to the mandate, Greene said.  “The employer is required to consider that request for exemption to vaccination, but not for exemption to testing,” he said.

PEF members who are professional employees may find their license to practice challenged if they refuse to comply with the vaccination mandate.  Greene said PEF will provide legal representation for members who face possible revocation of their license, but it must be related to their work duties.

Spence said he disagrees with members who have told him they believe the state needs nurses too badly to terminate them for refusing to be vaccinated.

“We have about 50 nurses who have received termination notices,” Spence said.

PEF Director of Field Services Katie Vorwald said she believes the state will enforce the vaccination mandate until all of the employees who can be vaccinated are. If you have a timing problem in complying with testing or vaccination, you should notify management of that problem, Vorwald said, and then notify your PEF steward or field representative.

“If you test positive for COVID, report it to your county health department,” Vorwald said.  “You have quarantine (leave) benefits. We strongly encourage the state to do its own robust contact tracing, but GOER is leaving it up to the agencies.”

PEF Director of Organizing Dan Carpenter reminded members that anti-union groups have no scruples about exploiting any division over this issue within a union.

“Your union didn’t mandate vaccinations and testing, the state did it against our objections,” Carpenter said.  “We fight for a healthy, safe workplace, and common sense.”

Remember, Spence added, “We are stronger when we stand together.”