HARTFORD — About 50 people who have opted not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine convened at the State Capitol on Wednesday afternoon to testify at a public hearing about how that decision has affected their ability to work.
The legislature’s Conservative Caucus organized the hearing. State Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, chair of the caucus, said that the purpose of the meeting was to hear the stories of people who are being affected by mandates requiring vaccination.
“The recent requirements for vaccination in order to maintain employment have raised concerns in the public,” France said. “We are here to hear from those people that are impacted by those orders.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order requiring that all state employees, hospital workers, K-12 teachers and staff and childcare workers be vaccinated against COVID-19. In August, Lamont mandated that workers in long-term care facilities and residential homes also be vaccinated. Private companies have also created their own vaccine mandates.
All the employees listed under the governor’s executive orders must have received the first dose of a vaccine by September 27, unless they are approved for a medical or religious exemption. School employees and non-hospital state employees are allowed to opt-out of the vaccination, but must undergo weekly testing for the virus. The state has made some free testing sites available.
State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said he receives a half a dozen calls daily from constituents worried about their jobs. Fishbein said he believed that any decisions about vaccination mandates should have come from the legislature, and not through executive order.
“Certainly these vaccine mandates have been talked about for a couple of months. Now we could have gotten legislation done,” he said.
Fishbein also said that he was hearing that the unions were not supporting individuals who were refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.
“These people are turning to their union leadership, their exclusive representative in that sphere. And the unions are not standing up for these individuals. And that’s disconcerting,” Fishbein said.
Sherri Dayton, AFT Connecticut Vice President for Healthcare and President of the Backus Federation of Nurses said that the union has been negotiating to protect workers who did not want to be vaccinated.
“Since our employers began mandating vaccinations, we have been focused on negotiating the impact of such a policy on the few members that would be affected. We’ve succeeded in reaching agreements that both protect their individual rights as well as the collective health of their patients; that’s our responsibility as union leaders,” Dayton said.
Dayton also said that legislators should be “helping to educate their constituents on the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines” rather than taking an opportunity to “sow polarization in the middle of a global public health crisis for political gain.”
In response to the hearing, Democratic leaders in the State Senate, Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, released a statement urging people to get vaccinated.
“Today we saw the impact dangerous disinformation is having on the Republican party. We all must ignore the lies around COVID, trust the science, and speak only to the facts. The COVID vaccine is safe, effective, and will save lives. People are needlessly dying for failing to act responsibly. Get vaccinated,” the statement read.
Fishbein said about 200 people had signed up in advance for the hearing. Jamison Benizet, communications specialist in the House Republican’s Office, said that nearly 400 emails were submitted as written testimony, and that the caucus was working on making the written testimony available online.
“We will be financially ruined”
Some of the first people to speak at the hearing were part of a group of bus drivers serving the Bristol public schools. Ashley Madore, one of the drivers, said there were at least 25 bus drivers in Bristol who were against the vaccine mandate.
“Our union isn’t sticking up for us, they’re not fighting for us. I’ve been told that disciplinary action will be taken against me and my co-workers for standing up for our rights,” Madore testified.
Madore also said that losing unvaccinated drivers could exacerbate an already existing shortage of bus drivers in the state.
“We’re hurting. We’re struggling to fill the routes and pick up these kids and bring them to school as it is,” she said.
Patricia Tavalozzi, a nurse whose husband works at Pratt and Whitney, said that the company had mandated that its employees be vaccinated by January 1, 2022.
Tavalozzi said that her husband, who has worked for the company for 40 years, could lose a portion of his pension and that his early social security could be cut in half. She said that she had left her former nursing job in 2020 in protest of the way the COVID situation was being handled, and taken a $28 per hour pay cut.
“If [Pratt and Whitney] do this, and they’re allowed to do this, and they are doing this, we will be financially ruined,” she said.
Tavalozzi and Madore said that workers, rather than being fired, were being placed on unpaid leave by their employers, which meant that they were unable to collect unemployment benefits.
Tavalozzi said that a leave of absence also meant that employees receiving insurance through their employer were still required to pay the company for health care benefits.
Mark McGuire, a former member of the Navy and the Connecticut National Guard who is now working toward a license in clinical psychology, said he lost his job at the start of September because he would not get vaccinated. He said he was applying for positions, but that he was having difficulty finding internships and jobs.
“There were a couple of places who said [that] because I’m not fully vaccinated, that they weren’t even going to consider hiring me,” McGuire said.
A number of people testified that they felt the mandates were a form of “coercion.” They also pointed to the fact that vaccinated individuals can also test positive for the virus.
Trisha Connolly, also a bus driver in Bristol, said that she felt mandating unvaccinated people be tested weekly, but not requiring the same of unvaccinated people, was “discriminatory.”
Mona Colwell, a resident of Old Lyme who was involved with a group of parents bringing a lawsuit against the University of Connecticut for mandating that students receive COVID-19 vaccinations, called out the legislators for not being more vocal in supporting their constituents.
“I’m just a mom. Where were all of you?” she said to the legislators. “I hold everybody in our CT legislature in contempt of our Constitution.”
A lack of data
The Conservative Caucus did not provide data on how many individuals were currently at risk of losing their jobs because they refused to get vaccinated.
According to a statement from the Connecticut Hospital Association, the “vast majority” of the state hospital employees are vaccinated, and the association does not believe they will lose many of their employees based on the requirement.
“Requiring hospital employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is the right thing to do for the safety of patients, their families, and our colleagues working in hospitals across the state,” the statement read.
The State Department of Education did not respond to a request for data.
Christopher Boyle, spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, said the agency did not have data on how many individuals in long-term care facilities opted not to receive the vaccine or would not provide vaccine information.