20210812-LOC-COVID Vaccine

Just over a week after President Joe Biden announced plans to institute a federal COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandate for all employers with 100 or more workers, large businesses in the Monadnock Region say they’re still waiting to see how this requirement will affect them.

“As you can imagine, President Biden’s mandates have been a topic of conversation here in our Peterborough facility, and in fact, all three of our facilities, for a few days now,” said Robyn Nattila, a spokeswoman for the Peterborough-based N.H. Ball Bearings, which also has locations in Laconia and Chatsworth, Calif. “Where we’ve landed is that the ‘devil is in the details’ and, unfortunately, we haven’t seen the details yet.”

Biden said last Thursday he was directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop a rule requiring large private-sector employers, covering about 80 million workers nationwide, to mandate coronavirus shots or require unvaccinated employees to be tested weekly. But that rule will take time to write, and likely will face a wide array of legal challenges. According to The Associated Press, the OSHA rule might not be published until November. Penalties for non-compliance could go up to $13,600 per violation, according to the AP.

“Until these important clarifications are published, we don’t feel it is appropriate to speculate on the types of responses that will be required,” Nattila said in an email. “Once we have had a chance to review these documents, however, NHBB will implement the necessary policies in order to comply.”

In the meantime, Timken Super Precision, which operates a facility at 7 Optical Ave. in Keene, is taking a similar wait-and-see approach.

“We are analyzing the recent announcement by the President and awaiting details on the final requirements,” the company said in a written statement. “In the meantime, we continue to encourage our workforce to get vaccinated.”

Timken, an Ohio-based company that produces precision ball bearings for aerospace and other uses, declined to say how many people work at its Keene facility, and how many of those employees are immunized. According to the N.H. Department of Employment Security, the company has about 267 employees in the Elm City.

N.H. Ball Bearings employs about 450 people in Peterborough, Nattila said. And while she did not provide specific figures, she added that, “based on information that employees have volunteered to us, the percentage of those fully vaccinated is substantially higher than both the National and NH state rates, when looking at the age 18-64 demographic.”

According to the state, 61.7 percent of those eligible for the vaccine — people as young as 12 — are fully immunized. Nationwide, that figure is 63.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Chris Sununu encouraged more Granite Staters to get vaccinated as coronavirus cases continue to surge in New Hampshire and nationwide, driven by the more contagious delta variant. But he also sharply criticized the forthcoming federal requirement, and said he’s working with other governors and state attorneys general to pursue legal action against it.

“The president unilaterally decided this,” Sununu said. “And again, making people choose between their livelihood and their job or getting the vaccine, all of that, it’s just the wrong approach. We want folks to get vaccinated. It works. But having this one size fits all with the swoop of a pen forcing it, that’s not good government, frankly.”

But, Sununu said, since the OSHA rule requiring vaccines hasn’t been written yet, states cannot yet file lawsuits challenging it. On Thursday, N.H. Attorney General John Formella was one of 24 state AGs nationwide who signed a letter threatening to sue the Biden administration if it does not walk back the announcement of the mandate.

“Your plan is disastrous and counterproductive,” the letter reads. “From a policy perspective, this edict is unlikely to win hearts and minds — it will simply drive further skepticism. And at least some Americans will simply leave the job market instead of complying. This will further strain an already-too-tight labor market, burdening companies and (therefore) threatening the jobs of even those who have received the vaccine.”

Nattila, the N.H. Ball Bearings spokeswoman, said the company will keep a close eye on that aspect of the vaccine mandate.

“Certainly we are hopeful that the forthcoming details from [federal officials] ... will not increase the difficulty in retaining and attracting talent in this extremely tight labor market,” she said. “Time will tell.”

And while local large employers await further clarity on the federal mandate, and legal challenges wait in the wings, several organizations in the Monadnock Region have already instituted their own COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

All three area hospitals — Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital — have implemented employee vaccine requirements. Genesis Healthcare — a Pennsylvania-based nursing home company with area locations in Keene, Winchester and Peterborough — also implemented its own mandate last month.

Franklin Pierce University, a private school that has about 1,200 students and 235 faculty and staff at its Rindge campus, is requiring all students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Keene State College — one of the city’s largest employers with about 600 workers — is not requiring vaccination this fall due to a new state law that makes it illegal to require a COVID-19 vaccine “in order to secure, receive, or access any public facility, any public benefit, or any public service from the state of New Hampshire,” including the state’s public schools.

But the college is still encouraging students and employees to get a coronavirus shot, and share their vaccination status with the school. As of Wednesday, 78 percent of Keene State faculty and staff and 62 percent of students have submitted proof of vaccination, college spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said, though those figures continue to grow.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.