142 Sunmount staff remain unvaxed as mandate takes effect

The main Sunmount facility, a state institution for developmentally disabled, is seen here in 2017. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Twelve percent of employees at Sunmount face “disciplinary measures” if they don’t get vaccinated in compliance with a federal mandate that took effect Thursday.

Employees at the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities facility will need to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 26, at which point the option for them to test negative in lieu of being vaccinated will expire.

In December, a federal judge temporarily blocked the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services mandate, which was ordered by President Joe Biden last fall. At that time, the hold allowed around 440 unvaccinated staff at the facility to keep working and delayed a potential staffing crisis there. CMS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services successfully appealed the decision, and employees were required to have at least one dose of a vaccine by Thursday.

OPWDD Director of Communications Jennifer O’Sullivan said Thursday that 82% of Sunmount staff were vaccinated.

“That number continues to grow,” she wrote in an email.

The percentage of vaccinated employees has risen 20% since early December.

O’Sullivan said the state has hosted on-site vaccination clinics at the Sunmount campus.

Still, 142 of Sunmount’s 1,180 staff members face “disciplinary measures” if they don’t get vaccinated by the deadline.

“Any staff members not in compliance with the federal mandate will be subject to disciplinary measures consistent with existing collective bargaining agreements.” O’Sullivan said.

She declined to specify what these measures would be — unpaid leave, termination or some other measure.

Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun, who sits on Sunmount’s board of visitors, said if staff were put on leave or terminated because of this mandate, the rest of the 1,038 vaccinated Sunmount employees would have to work mandatory overtime to fill in the gaps. The facility is already understaffed, he said.

O’Sullivan said OPWDD is not aware of any resignations related to the mandate.

She detailed some of the state agency’s plans for handling this possible staffing crisis.

“OPWDD is prepared to take appropriate actions, such as redeployment of part time staff, temporary reassignments, overtime and time-limited adjustments to program operations to maintain staffing levels that ensure the health and safety of all people supported,” she wrote.

Maroun pointed out that the facility has to be staffed 24/7 and that taxpayers will be funding the overtime costs that may occur as a result of the gap.

He made a plea for employees to get vaccinated for their own safety, and for the safety of the facility’s residents.

“If you had a relative that was a resident at Sunmount, you’d want them to be as protected as possible,” he said.

He himself has a family member living at an OPWDD care center. Maroun pointed out that developmentally disabled residents of Sunmount often have weakened immune systems.

“Get vaccinated,” he said. “There’s certain things you have to do to keep the position. They’re good jobs.”

The mandate applies to health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds, as Sunmount does. Employees at these facilities have to be vaccinated to work with clients, or lose their federal funding.

Sunmount receives millions of dollars in federal aid, so losing it is not an option, Maroun said.

Right now, unvaccinated staff are able to continue working under a state vaccine mandate by submitting to weekly COVID-19 testing in lieu of getting the vaccine, but the CMS federal mandate would not allow for that to continue.


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