Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday issued one of the nation’s strictest government vaccine mandates, requiring tens of thousands of state employees to prove they have been inoculated against COVID-19 by mid-October or risk being fired.
Baker’s order goes a step further than the mandate in place for employees of the City of Boston, as well as state workers in New York and California, who have the option of submitting to regular COVID-19 testing if they choose not to get vaccinated.
The mandate applies to about 42,000 executive department employees and 2,000 contractors for executive department agencies, whether they are working in person or teleworking. Under the new requirement, state employees may be entitled to exemptions “due to medical disability or . . . a sincerely held religious belief,” according to an executive order signed by Baker.
“It’s very clear at this point that the vaccine is by far the most effective tool we have in our toolbox to make it possible for us to beat this thing,” Baker told reporters in New Bedford Thursday. “As the largest employer in Massachusetts, we felt it was important for us to step forward and make a statement about the value and the importance of getting vaccinated, and I certainly hope that many other employers will take a look at what we’re doing here and follow suit.”
Employees must prove vaccination status by Oct. 17 and the requirement will eventually include a booster shot, according to a news release from the Baker administration. The order includes everyone from social workers to budget analysts to correction officers — and has drawn mixed reviews, including the threat of legal action, from the various unions that represent some of those workers.
Massachusetts has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, which has insulated it somewhat from the rising threat of the contagious Delta variant, though cases have been increasing in the state.
With the new mandate, Baker sets a stricter tone than most Democratic governors in the nation — not to mention his Republican counterparts, many of whom have issued no mandates at all or have panned vaccine requirements of any kind. The step puts Baker in line with Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state, a Democrat, who has also required state workers to be vaccinated without giving them the option of taking regular tests instead.
“Today’s action sets an example that other employers can and should follow,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. A firm vaccine mandate without a testing alternative is critical, she said: “Periodic testing programs are not nearly as effective, since a test represents only a moment in time, and this type of program protects only others, not the individual.”
President Biden last month announced that millions of federal workers will be required to sign forms attesting they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else comply with new rules on mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing, and more. That was aimed at increasing sluggish vaccination rates among the huge number of Americans who draw federal paychecks — and at setting an example for private employers around the country.
More than 20 states have issued some form of vaccination mandate, with some targeting specific groups like health care workers while others include all state workers, according to an analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Baker’s executive order encourages, but does not require, other organizations in state government, including higher education institutions, the Legislature, and the judiciary, to issue similar mandates.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey had already required her staff to be vaccinated unless they sought medical or religious exemptions.
Massachusetts state Auditor Suzanne M. Bump and Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, as well as Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey, have allowed government workers to choose between vaccinations and regular testing. A spokeswoman for Goldberg said she would evaluate Baker’s order “with an eye on implementing a like policy.” A spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin said he is considering a vaccine mandate.
Democratic legislative leaders said they are discussing policies for their own chambers. Senate President Karen E. Spilka would support a vaccine mandate in the Senate, a spokeswoman said. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Ronald Mariano said the House intends to impose a vaccine requirement as part of its return-to-work policy.
Every University of Massachusetts campus is moving toward a vaccine mandate for employees without a testing alternative, said John Hoey, a spokesman.
Within the judiciary, the state Trial Court and Appeals Court have required employees to get vaccinated or be tested, and the Supreme Judicial Court has yet to make a decision, a spokeswoman said.
The new mandate is a pivot for Baker, who until now had resisted taking such a step.
“The idea that I would kick somebody out of a job — and especially in the kind of economy we have now — because, quote unquote, they wouldn’t get vaccinated right away on an [emergency use authorization]-approved vaccine. . . . No. I’m not gonna play that game,” Baker said in May, before Delta was as prevalent.
The mandate drew mixed reviews from public-sector unions.
Peter MacKinnon and Israel Pierre, president and treasurer of SEIU Local 509, which represents about 8,000 executive department employees, said the union “unequivocally supports this mandate.”
But the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union said it would pursue “all legal and legislative remedies, up to and including an injunction in court” to fight Baker’s new order.
“This fight is not over. It is just the beginning,” the union’s executive board wrote in a statement Thursday.
David Holway, national president of the National Association of Government Employees, which represents 12,000 Massachusetts executive branch employees and thousands more in the state, said he was “disappointed.”
“I thought [Baker] would take the more moderate approach” of allowing employees to opt for testing in lieu of vaccines, Holway said. “He’s a weather vane: Which way is the wind blowing here, and let me jump on board this band wagon. I don’t know what he’s doing.”
NAGE is encouraging all its members to get vaccinated, Holway said, but will fight for workers who are dismissed for refusing vaccines. A court battle seems likely, he said.
The Baker administration “will continue to work with its union partners regarding this policy,” and discuss potential disciplinary consequences well before the October deadline, the governor’s news release said.
The vaccine mandate comes as some urge Baker to take a harder line with other COVID-19 restrictions. Baker has so far resisted calls to require masks and vaccinations in schools this fall, steps some Democratic critics say are crucial for the safety of students who are too young to be vaccinated.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.