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Get the COVID-19 vaccine or potentially lose your job.
That’s the choice Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is giving to tens of thousands of state government workers.
The Republican governor announced Thursday that he is ordering all of the state’s Executive Branch employees to provide proof that they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 17 or face “disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”
According to Baker’s office, the new mandate covers roughly 42,000 employees, from the governor’s office to departments of public safety, education, transportation, and others. It also covers around 2,000 additional contracted employees that work for the state’s executive departments.
Baker’s office said Thursday that employees will also be required to get COVID-19 vaccine boosters by a future, to-be-determined deadline, once federal officials release guidance for the additional shots.
The policy also applies to both employees working in-person and those who are teleworking, amid plans to shift nearly half the state’s workers toward more remote work.
The order does include exemptions for workers who cannot get vaccinated due to a medical condition or have a sincerely held religious belief against the vaccine.
Baker’s administration say it will provide further guidance “in the coming weeks” for employees who may wish to seek such an exemption.
Otherwise, all Executive Branch workers will need to show proof that they have received either the required two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or one shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by the Oct. 17 deadline.
Officials say employees will receive more information about the verification process in the coming week and that documents related to vaccinations will be maintained confidentially.
The mandate is a reversal for Baker, who forcefully opposed requiring — rather than encouraging — state employees to get the vaccine this spring, before the delta variant had become dominant.
“The idea that I would kick somebody out of a job — especially in a 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,” he said at the time.
However, with the vaccines now widely available and full approval for at least one vaccine slated next month, the governor’s position has changed.
Baker hinted that such a policy was coming during a radio appearance Wednesday, although he suggested it might take the form of a less stringent policy requiring employees to face regular COVID-19 testing if they refused to get vaccinated — mirroring mandates implemented by a number of other state and local governments, including the City of Boston.
However, the new order announced Thursday makes no mention of a testing alternative, making it more strict than the vaccine mandates for state workers in California and New York. Washington is the only other state with a mandate threatening termination for not getting the vaccine.
Baker’s office said it plans to discuss specific ramifications for workers who don’t comply with the mandate with their unions “well in advance” of Oct. 17. Management employees who refuse to get vaccinated will also be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination, officials noted.
In the press release announcing the move, Baker’s office stressed that the COVID-19 vaccines are “the best and most effective way people can protect themselves, their loved ones and their community from the virus.”
SEIU Local 509, a public sector union that represents over 8,000 state employees, praised the new mandate Thursday as “a critical step towards halting the COVID-19 virus,” but added that it would “bargain with the Commonwealth to make sure our members’ rights are protected.”
“We will fight to ensure our members are provided access to the vaccine itself, and protections and exemptions for individual medical conditions or sincerely held religious beliefs,” the union’s leaders said in a statement, urging Baker and state lawmakers to pass legislation to “guarantee sick leave to receive and recover from the vaccine or COVID exposure.”
The governor’s order — which leapfrogs vaccine requirements with test-out options in other state offices — also encourages independent state agencies, public colleges and universities, elected officials, other constitutional offices, the Legislature, and the Judiciary to adopt policies “consistent with” the new mandate.
In response, Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka praised the “strong vaccination mandate” and said a Senate working group “is meeting to discuss updated hybrid work policies, including a vaccine mandate.”
“I expect this group to issue its recommendations very soon,” Spilka said in a statement.
According to the State House News Service, House Speaker Ron Mariano’s office also said that a vaccine requirement will be part of a return-to-work policy being developed by a group of state representatives.
Attorney General Maura Healey, one of the state’s earliest advocate of vaccine requirements for public employees, also praised Baker’s order. The Democratic attorney general’s office has implemented a similar policy for when its employees return to in-person work in late September, which only provides a testing alternative to those with medical or religious exemptions.
“This is the right move for our state to help prevent further risk of the virus and protect the health and safety of our colleagues and the public we serve,” Healey said in a statement.
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