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Sunday deadline looms for thousands of Mass. state workers to get COVID-19 vaccinations or risk being fired

A coronavirus vaccination being prepared.
A coronavirus vaccination being prepared.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The deadline is Sunday for employees of the state’s executive branch to prove they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk being suspended or fired.

The vaccine mandate, announced by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker on Aug. 19, applies to about 42,000 executive department employees and 2,000 contractors for executive department agencies, whether they are working in person or teleworking.

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. The requests for exemptions were due by Oct. 8.

“The Baker-Polito Administration is encouraged by the response by Executive Department employees completing the vaccination verification process ahead of the October 17 deadline and will continue to work with employees to address questions and requests for exemptions,” governor’s spokesman Terry MacCormack said in an e-mail.

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“To date, over 40,000 Executive Department employees have submitted the attestation form or applied for an exemption, and the Administration is continuing to gather information from employees,” he said.

The governor’s office said the state had been “engaging with its union partners for weeks” on the mandate and the state had “issued dozens of emails, text alerts, social media posts, and other communications to employees and managers to provide guidance and reminders about the requirement.”

Employees seeking exemptions “have been considered on a rolling basis and remaining requests will be reviewed in the coming weeks,” the governor’s office said.

Unless otherwise notified, all employees should show up to work on Monday. Management on Monday will begin contacting those who have not filled out their vaccination attestation forms to find out why, the governor’s office said.

One union leader said he expected his members to step up. Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU Local 509, which represents about 8,500 state workers and supports vaccine mandates, said, “I’m cautiously optimistic that, come Monday morning, for the folks that we represent, we’re going to see high vaccination rates across the board.”

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He said it would be “wild speculation” to guess what percentage of members will have complied by Monday, but “we hope that as many people as possible get the vaccine or get an exemption.”

The union represents social workers and human service workers who work with at-risk populations. So they got their shots earlier and are also more receptive, he said. “Our members know that they need to be healthy to make sure the people they care for are healthy,” he said. “It’s just part of the fabric of who our membership is.”

Baker’s mandate was tougher than many others because it does not allow for people to refuse the vaccine and get regular COVID-19 testing instead.

The state website said that non-compliance will result in “progressive discipline,” including unpaid suspensions and terminations.

The site also noted that those workers “who are separated from employment for failing or refusing to comply with an employer’s requirement that employees maintain COVID-19 vaccination will not be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.”

Efforts by some state unions to fight the vaccine mandate have been in the news recently. The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union sued to postpone the mandate, but on Friday a federal judge denied the union’s request. According to a court filing, 1,400 correction officers, or 40 percent of the union members, were unvaccinated as of Wednesday.

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The State Police Association of Massachusetts has also balked, but lost last month in state court.

At the federal level, President Biden has moved to require vaccinations for federal workers, federal contractors, health care workers, and employees of businesses with more than 100 workers.

“We have to do more to vaccinate the 66 million unvaccinated people in America. It’s essential,” Biden said Thursday. Biden has seen stiff resistance from Republicans.

The city of Boston is requiring its workers to get vaccinated or agree to undergo regular testing. On Wednesday, officials said that 812 workers in “public-facing agencies” had been placed on unpaid leave for failure to do so. By the end of the day Wednesday, 175 of the 812 had had filed paperwork to comply, leaving 637 still on unpaid leave pending proof of their compliance. The number had dropped to 602 as of Thursday, the mayor’s press office said.

Matt Stout and Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.