1,571 state workers not complying with vaccine mandate
Details still unclear; no significant staffing shortages expected
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S vaccine mandate for executive branch employees went into effect Sunday, and more than 1,500 state workers remain out of compliance. But state government did not experience mass terminations on Monday. Instead, it was a day of confusion for some, as employees were told to report to work, while the administration still had not ruled on some employees’ applications for exemptions.
“They don’t know whether they’re going to have a job today or tomorrow,” said Michael Cherven, president of the State Police Association, which went to court unsuccessfully to fight the vaccine mandate. “Nobody’s telling us what’s going on.”
According to Baker officials, there are currently 1,571 employees who have not attested that they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or have not applied for a religious or medical exemption. There are 40,462 employees who have complied with the order to be vaccinated or apply for an exemption. (A few hundred additional workers submitted paperwork, but still require follow-up to determine their status.) The administration did not break down how many of those are vaccinated versus how many applied for an exemption.
Baker, speaking to reporters Monday, declined to say which departments had the most unvaccinated individuals. He said his administration intends to contact those who haven’t attested to confirm their status. “I’m going to let that process play out before we start talking about any of that stuff,” he said after a private meeting at the State House with Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka.
According to the state policy, managers who fail to get vaccinated or obtain an exemption will be suspended for five days without pay, then fired. Union members will get 15 days of suspension without pay before they are terminated.
However, some workers’ status remained in limbo Monday. All employees were told to report to work unless explicitly instructed otherwise. According to state officials, the human resource departments of each agency will, over the coming days, reach out to employees who have not submitted the required paperwork to determine their vaccination status.
Employees who requested exemptions are having those exemptions considered on a rolling basis, and the state expects to have those requests processed within two weeks.
Cherven said the uncertainty is frustrating. He complained that the police union has not been notified how many of its members are at risk of losing their jobs, and the administration has not responded to troopers’ exemption requests, even though they were submitted before a state deadline in August. It is also unclear what alternative work arrangements will be allowed for members who received an exemption. “While our members have continued their watch day in and day out, and adhered to each rushed date and deadline, the administration has fumbled,” Cherven said.
As of last week, Cherven said he was told that there were 299 state police workers who had not been vaccinated, of whom 200 had applied for exemptions. (Some of the others included police who were deployed or on leave.) Almost all the exemption applications – 186 – were for religious exemptions, and 14 were medical. The State Police have approximately 2,000 employees.
Baker said there is a process in place to handle exemptions. “There’s been an ongoing dialogue with all of the unions since August,” he said.
The governor said it’s a two-step process to obtain a religious exemption. He said the request is first considered by the agency the employee works for and then the employee goes through a central review process to make sure everyone is treated equally.
The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, in an October 7 letter to its members, said people with religious exemptions that had previously been granted or were still pending had been told that the process was changed and they had to go in front of a newly constructed panel.
David Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, said he thinks it has been “rare” for the administration to grant a religious exemption, and he has had members be turned down after applying for one. Holway had no concrete numbers as of midday Monday but he estimated that fewer than 100 of his 12,000 executive branch members were at risk of losing their jobs.
The potential job losses left some union representatives concerned about the impact on state services.
Cherven said the police were already understaffed, and losing up to 300 employees would harm the force and the public. Cherven said troopers have been told that all time-off is canceled and they should be ready to be deployed at any moment. Baker indicated short-staffing is not a major concern, noting that 90 percent of state police are vaccinated, and a new state police class is graduating next week.
Joe Markman, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said public and private health care employers were already short-staffed before the pandemic. “Anything going on now is in addition to the lean staffing that’s been going on for a long time,” Markman said. Markman did not have numbers about how many MNA members were unvaccinated, though he said he has not yet seen a large-scale impact from the vaccinate mandate.
Previously, Baker announced that he would deploy the National Guard to assist with prison operations, if the vaccine mandate led to staffing shortages there. The Guard members are currently in training. That announcement came after the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union told members that contingency plans for addressing short-staffing included cancelling time off, locking down prisons, consolidating units, and bringing in retired prison workers or National Guard members. The correction officers’ union also sued unsuccessfully to delay implementation of the mandate.
At the State House press conference, Senate President Spilka indicated her branch’s vaccine mandate is proceeding smoothly. She said all 40 senators and their staff have responded, and indicated only 4 percent of them were finalizing their second shot or seeking an exemption. She said each exemption would be handled on an individualized basis. “I am very optimistic that we will reach our goal of 100 percent compliance very soon,” Spilka said later in a statement.
Cities and towns have generally not experienced the same concerns about staffing loss because they have generally structured their mandates differently and allowed employees who choose not to get vaccinated to make alternative arrangements – like wearing a mask and getting a weekly COVID test. Baker is not allowing testing in place of vaccination.
Richard MacKinnon, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, which represents municipal fire fighters, estimated that about 80 percent of the union’s members are vaccinated, but none have lost their jobs over a vaccine mandate. “Luckily our cities and towns have done a good job sitting down and going through it with us and implementing a testing policy for those that cannot be vaccinated,” MacKinnon said.Overall, Baker said he is satisfied with how the mandate is going, since it raised vaccination rates for state workers from the 60 to 70 percent range up to 95 percent today. He said he wants the public to know the state workers they are dealing with are vaccinated.
“I understood at the start of all this why people would be concerned about a vaccine that wasn’t rushed but appeared to happen pretty quickly,” Baker said. “But the simple truth is we are literally hundreds of millions of vaccinations in the US and hundreds of millions of vaccinations in other parts of the world…and they have proven their worth over and over again.”