More than 95% of Massachusetts executive branch state employees submitted the necessary paperwork on time to comply with Gov. Charlie Baker's vaccine mandate, but for the more than 1,500 who did not, it remains unclear when the threatened consequences including suspension and termination will begin.
Monday marked the first full day after the Oct. 17 deadline for executive branch workers to attest they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or apply for a medical or religious exemption. Amid criticism from the head of the state police union about poor communication, Baker would not offer specifics about when the administration would begin to discipline employees or which agencies had higher rates of non-compliance.
"Our goal here is to make sure we connect with everybody who hasn't already attested and find out exactly what their story is before we make any decisions about (discipline)," Baker told reporters after meeting with legislative leaders.
Asked when the suspensions his administration has threatened would begin, Baker replied, "After we've worked our way through the process."
State police union leaders, who unsuccessfully challenged the vaccine mandate in court, earlier on Monday contended that they have been met with near-total silence from the administration about exemptions or the start of disciplinary action.
Michael Cherven, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, said the Massachusetts State Police told him last week that 299 troopers are not vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 14 sought an exemption from the mandate on medical grounds and 186 sought an exemption for religious reasons, he said.
But on Monday, one day after the deadline to comply with the executive order, Cherven said his union is still unsure how many received the exemption they sought, or how many troopers put in letters of resignation in response to the mandate. The union "fully expected" to hear an answer Friday about when officers who fail to comply could be off the job, but the weekend came and went with no such indication, Cherven said.
"We are here today with no answers," Cherven said, gathered alongside more than a dozen state troopers from Massachusetts and other states. "Can you imagine the frustration level of our members? They don't know whether they're going to have a job today, tomorrow. They were told today is the final day (to comply). Nobody's telling us what's going on."
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Cherven said it is his "belief" that all 299 of those unvaccinated officers are still employed as of Monday, but stressed that he does not know for certain amid a situation that is "changing so fluidly."
The Baker administration has said it would consider applications for vaccine mandate exemptions on a rolling basis. All remaining requests will be reviewed in the next two weeks, officials said.
Cherven warned that the state police department remains understaffed, with about 2,000 total troopers on the force today including new academy graduates. He hinted that the mandate and its potentially forceful consequences could exacerbate "unsafe, critically low staffing."
"All time off has been canceled, and every detective and every trooper has been told, 'Make sure your uniform is with you. Be prepared to be deployed to cover basic services, 911 and road duties,'" Cherven said. "That is an order that was put out by the colonel last week."
Baker, who responded to SPAM's criticism by describing an "ongoing dialogue" with unions that he said has been underway since he announced the policy in August, said he is "not concerned" about the number of available state troopers.
About 90% of all Massachusetts state troopers have attested to being vaccinated against COVID-19, he said, similar to Cherven's estimate that 85% of his members are vaccinated. Another trooper class is set to graduate next week, Baker said.
"We'll make sure that we do what we need to do to ensure that they continue to perform the duties that they're expected to perform," Baker said. "I'm not concerned."
The governor activated the National Guard last week to cope with potential staffing shortages in the state Department of Correction stemming from the administration's vaccine mandate, but so far, the extra help has not been needed.
Baker said Monday that no guard personnel have been deployed to correctional facilities yet because "everybody came to work" on the first day past the compliance deadline.
SPAM had unsuccessfully challenged the vaccine mandate in court ahead of the deadline, as did the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated United. Cherven declined to comment Monday on potential future legal action his group might pursue.
Baker, a Republican, has also faced vocal criticism from other leaders in his own party such as MassGOP Chair Jim Lyons, with whom the governor is locked in an increasingly contentious dispute.
"These are the same employees who risked their lives performing essential duties such as policing and working corrections jobs when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its absolute peak," Lyons said on Monday. "These workers showed up and dutifully performed their jobs despite the threat, only to be rewarded with an authoritarian ultimatum from Gov. Baker: submit to the vaccine, or you're fired."
Baker on Monday pointed to the impact that "literally hundreds of millions of vaccinations in the U.S. and hundreds of millions of vaccinations in other parts of the world" have had on the state's public health metrics and on business activity.
"There are real consequences here to not understanding and appreciating that doing something to reduce the amount of COVID that exists in our communities actually has an enormously positive benefit," Baker said. "As one of the largest employers in the commonwealth, many of whose employees spend every single day dealing with the public at large, it seemed perfectly appropriate to me and to us that to be safe and to provide confidence to the public, adding a vaccine mandate for folks who work in the executive branch was the right thing to do."
"The fact that 95% of our employees have attested to either being vaccinated or having to file for an exemption -- and the vast, vast, vast majority have been vaccinated -- I think is an indication from the state workforce that they agree with us," he added.
Baker's executive order, issued in August, calls for progressive discipline for employees who do not get vaccinated or acquire an exemption. Managers will first be suspended for five days without pay and ultimately terminated for "continued non-compliance," according to the administration. Bargaining unit members face a five-day suspension without pay, followed by an additional 10-day suspension without pay, after which failure to comply will result in termination.
Cherven said SPAM hoped to negotiate with the administration to scale back the consequences for failing to comply with the order. Instead of threatening termination, Cherven said, he wants the administration to allow unvaccinated troopers -- regardless of whether they sought an exemption -- to wear a mask and submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.
"We can have weekly testing and mask wearing, the same that we've been doing for the past year and a half, the same thing that other departments are already being offered," he said. "That's all we're looking for, a level playing field."
That option would align the Baker administration's policy with mandates in place in New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and many local departments, according to Cherven.
As of Monday, 40,462 active employees had submitted the required paperwork attesting that they are vaccinated or applied for an exemption, according to the Baker administration. Baker said that figure "is a much bigger number than we had two weeks ago."
Another 1,571 executive branch employees had neither submitted an attestation nor an exemption request. All employees have been instructed to report to work as usual on Monday except for an unspecified number notified otherwise.
In the Senate, which also has a vaccine mandate for its workforce, Senate President Karen Spilka said 100% of the chamber -- representing all 40 elected senators and 258 staff -- responded by the end-of-day Friday deadline.
About 4% of those lawmakers and employees are working through a religious or medical exemption application or are finalizing their second vaccine dose, she said.
"The folks that have applied for exemptions are getting very personalized, individual attention to work through the exemption process, so at this point in time, I am very satisfied with the results," Spilka said.
Unlike the Senate, where the vaccine requirement took effect administratively and without debate or public controversy, the House used a formal roll call vote to implement its own policy after heated debate.
In an email to Senate staff, Spilka said the successful vaccine mandate implementation "means we can once again begin moving forward on a hybrid work plan."
A House working group on Monday informed representatives and staff that they must show proof of vaccination by Nov. 1 to work physically from the State House and that they must wear masks in House-controlled spaces.