Nearly three-quarters of Boston city employees, including those who work in the public schools, have submitted proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or are undergoing weekly testing, as the city begins enforcement of a sweeping mandate to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
However, the new city data did not detail vaccination status by the employee’s position, making it impossible to determine whether those who directly interact with the public, such as teachers, librarians, or aides who work with the elderly and disabled, have the fullest protection.
The mandate, which Acting Mayor Kim Janey unveiled for the city’s 18,000 employees on Aug. 12, is being rolled out in three phases that began last week with public schools and several other agencies.
Employees who don’t comply could eventually be placed on unpaid leave — a move the city has not taken yet. The city’s human resources team and an outside contractor are still verifying hundreds of documents that have been submitted.
Under the mandate, employees are not required to be vaccinated, but those who are not must submit a negative test result every week once their respective agency reaches the deadline to comply. Employees who test positive must inform the city and follow quarantine protocols.
“We are working closely with our diverse workforce, and our union partners, to ensure employees have access to vaccination, testing, and verification systems to achieve full compliance with the mandate,” a city spokesperson said.
The Boston edict has generated little public controversy — unlike similar mandates elsewhere, which have sparked protests and even lawsuits from public service employees.
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union filed a federal lawsuit seeking to delay Governor Charlie Baker’s requirement that all state employees be vaccinated by Oct. 17. Previously, the Massachusetts state police union sued the Baker administration over the mandate, but didn’t prevail.
And in New York City, a group of public school educators has also sued over that city’s mandate, though so far unsuccessfully.
Matt O’Malley, president pro tem of the Boston City Council, said the mandate is probably not provoking a big backlash here because it provides flexibility, giving employees who oppose vaccination the ability to do weekly testing instead. Most city employees, however, appear to support vaccination, he said, noting that 97 percent of the City Council staff is vaccinated.
“Part of a public servant’s job is doing everything you can do to keep the community safe,” said O’Malley. “When public employees try to sue, I question their commitment to public service. . . . I’m proud there has not been that kind of resistance in Boston.”
It’s unclear whether Boston will fire employees who refuse to comply. “Any discipline will be based on progressive discipline and collective bargaining agreements,” a spokesperson for the city said.
Bringing the first set of departments into compliance is proving to be a huge undertaking. The Boston Public Schools is the city’s largest department, employing 11,000 workers. Other city agencies in the first wave include the Commission on Disabilities, the Age Strong office, and public libraries.
Employees in the first phase were supposed to submit proof of vaccination by Sept. 20. For those who didn’t, they needed a negative COVID-19 test result by Monday.
The second wave of employees must provide vaccine documentation by Monday. That group encompasses many private contractors, including school bus drivers, as well as police officers, firefighters, the city clerk’s office, and other agencies that deal with the public. The final wave of employees have until Oct. 18 to comply.
So far, 13,000 employees have submitted documentation or a negative test result since Boston launched its online portal on Aug. 30. The city said it was unable to provide a breakdown of compliance rates by department.
For many Boston families and educators, getting all school employees inoculated is considered especially important in helping to prevent COVID-19 infections from spreading to unvaccinated children.
Currently, children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for the shots, representing roughly half of the school system’s student population, while a number of older students remain unvaccinated. That landscape is putting them at higher risk for the highly contagious Delta variant, which has been causing infection rates to rise among children and teenagers around the nation in recent months.
Moreover, as with many other school districts, Boston is no longer practicing social distancing in many cases in order to accommodate a full return to classrooms. The school system, however, is taking other steps to protect students and staff, such as upgrading ventilation and equipping classrooms with air purifiers and fans.
Stephanie Shapiro-Berkson, a public health consultant whose two sons attend Boston Latin School, said she wished the city could do a full vaccine mandate. “It’s frustrating we have this tool and people are refusing to get vaccinated,” she said.
But Shapiro-Berkson added that such a rule would have to be handled with sensitivity and flexibility, noting that resistance to vaccination in marginalized communities is often a result of decades of discrimination and unethical medical research practices.
The Boston vaccination effort has some bumps. Some teachers have encountered difficulties uploading vaccination documents or receiving confirmation they were received or verified, according to the Boston Teachers Union.
Some members on medical or other types of leaves have also been annoyed that the city has been sending them compliance reminders. The teachers union contends those employees should not be subjected to the mandate until they return to work.
Consequently, the union is asking the city to hold off on punitive measures until it confirms the accuracy of information for each individual.
“I think the city is doing the right thing [with the mandate] and it was an ambitious timeline for complying, especially at the start of a school year when there are so many other demands placed on educators to get school started,” union president Jessica Tang said. “I know our educators have been working diligently to meet the expectations and we are hopeful that the city will be able to continue to improve the process and streamline it.”
Xavier Andrews, a school spokesman, said the department has sent several reminders to its 11,000 workers about the mandate’s deadline.
The school system also has deployed staff to job sites to collect verification paperwork or to help employees upload it into the computer system and it has been holding vaccination clinics, including dozens at back-to-school events.