Massachusetts officials are offering to reinstate dozens of workers who lost their jobs after Governor Charlie Baker required that all executive branch employees be inoculated against COVID-19, a strict policy that, at its inception, was among the furthest-reaching in the nation.
State officials said Tuesday that about 50 employees have been offered their jobs back, a group that labor officials said appeared scattered across agencies and reportedly included the Department of Transportation. More than 1,000 were fired or quit after declining to get vaccinated against COVID-19, officials said in January.
At the time, Baker officials said that those who lost their jobs made up a fraction of the state’s workforce, and that more than 97 percent of the 41,000-plus executive branch employees subject to the vaccine requirement were in compliance.
Baker, speaking Tuesday, indicated the state made offers to those who previously sought a medical or religious exemption but had been denied. In February, state officials told WBUR that the administration had approved just 256 of more than 2,300 exemption requests, the majority of which were for religious beliefs.
“There’s been a process here for dealing with those who sought exemptions, and there are a small number of people who, based on continued reviews of those exemption requests, we believe we have solutions for. We want to talk to them,” Baker said Tuesday.
“Part of the exemption process depends to some extent on medical issues, on religious issues. And it also depends on the work you do,” he added. “There’s a small number of people that we want to talk to because we think we may have an answer for them.”
Officials from one labor union representing state employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss individual requests, estimated that about 10 percent of its members who were fired have received offers to return. They said the offers appear to be an attempt to plug worker shortages across an array of departments or agencies.
“There’s higher turnover, more people leaving,” one official said. “It’s harder for them to recruit people in this job market.”
According to a copy of one reinstatement letter shared with the Globe, the administration cited guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in making the offer. The letter said “high levels of immunity and availability of effective COVID-19 prevention and management tools have reduced the risk” of significant illness or death.
The Baker administration did not say why it chose now to make the reinstatement offers, other than it has “recently been able to accommodate a small number of positions who previously were not accommodated under the vaccine requirement.”
“These employees have been offered back their positions, and the administration does not anticipate more letters going out for additional positions,” said Anisha Chakrabarti, a Baker spokeswoman.
Chakrabarti said Baker, who will leave office in January, also does not have plans to change the administration’s vaccine rules “at this time.”
Baker’s mandate was among the strictest in the country when he announced it in August 2021. It did not include the option of submitting to regular COVID-19 testing for those who were not vaccinated, and applied to an array of state workers, from social workers to office staff to police.
Chris Keohan, a spokesman for the State Police Association of Massachusetts, which represents 1,800 troopers, said none of its fired members have received a reinstatement offer. At least 156 officers had unsuccessfully sought religious exemptions, all of which were denied, the union said last year. Of those, the majority were fired, retired, or resigned, Keohan said.
Patrick McNamara, the union’s president, said Tuesday that Baker’s mandate order should be rescinded, pointing to President Biden’s comments in September that “the pandemic is over.”
“The State Police continues to be at critically low staffing levels,” McNamara said in a statement. “The return to work for all troopers who are currently out of work because of the governor’s policies is long overdue.”
Baker has defended his decision to mandate that all executive branch workers be vaccinated. Last fall, he lamented about not having a “magic combination” to persuade holdouts to get inoculated.
“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I expect them, for themselves and their families and for the people they come in contact with every single day, to get a safe and effective vaccine,” Baker said at the time.
Baker’s decision to require vaccinations against COVID-19 has repeatedly been criticized by Geoff Diehl, the Republican nominee for governor. Diehl has promised to both undo the executive order, if elected, and fire those who thought it was a “good idea.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, the Democratic nominee, has supported Baker’s decision, saying last year that it was both legal and the “right move.” Healey, too, required that staff in her office get vaccinated.
In a statement Tuesday, Diehl cheered reports that some workers are receiving reinstatement offers.
“However,” the Whitman Republican said, “this doesn’t excuse the fact that these terminations were wrong in the first place and unjustifiably displaced these workers for many months. It also overlooks the fact that there are many other people, including especially first responders, who are still out of work due to these mandates.”
Unions representing troopers and prison workers had both unsuccessfully sought to stop Baker’s mandate.
The following week, the union representing about 4,000 Massachusetts prison guards also sued to postpone Baker’s mandate, but a federal judge in US District Court in Boston ruled against them and allowed the vaccine requirement to move forward.
Efforts to reach officials at the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents prison guards, were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Finding enough workers has been a persistent challenge, particularly in the private sector. The state’s labor force has shrunk each of the last four months, and industries ranging from restaurants and bars to hotels and hospitals have struggled to attract enough workers.
But vaccine requirements “seem to have disappeared,” said Kyle Pardo, an executive vice president at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. Some companies may still have them, but AIM itself isn’t regularly getting questions about them, Pardo said.
Instead, Pardo said the tight market is manifesting itself in a number of ways, such as companies cutting back on drug testing because “they simply don’t have enough applicants who would pass a drug test.”