About 42,000 state employees will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have secured a medical or religious exemption by Oct. 17, or face the risk of consequences including losing their jobs, under an executive order Gov. Charlie Baker signed Thursday.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers developing return-to-work plans for the House and Senate are also discussing vaccine mandates, with more specifics about those plans expected soon.
The order, issued a day after Baker said he was "seriously considering" some sort of vaccine mandate for workers under his purview, says that the executive department is the state's largest employer and "can lead in promoting policies to ensure the health and safety of all Massachusetts workers and residents."
Baker's order applies to his office and staff, the state's various executive offices, and "any agency, bureau, department, office, or division of the Commonwealth within or reporting to such an executive office of the commonwealth."
It encourages independent agencies and authorities, public colleges and universities, elected officials, other constitutional offices, the Legislature and the Judiciary "to adopt policies consistent with this executive order." Three constitutional officers — Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, Auditor Suzanne Bump and Attorney General Maura Healey — have already announced vaccine policies for their workforces, as has Boston Mayor Kim Janey.
Under Baker's order, all executive branch employees — including full-time, part-time and seasonal workers, temporary employees, and interns — will have until Oct. 17 to provide proof of their completed vaccination. In addition to the 42,000 employees, the policy will also apply to another roughly 2,000 contracted workers employed by executive departments, according to Baker's office.
The human resources division is tasked with developing a procedure to allow limited exemptions for employees unable to receive a COVID-19 shot because of a medical condition or unwilling to receive one "due to a sincerely held religious belief."
In the House, Speaker Ron Mariano "fully supports the Governor's efforts to get as many residents as possible vaccinated," according to a spokesperson, who said in a statement that a vaccine requirement and other mitigation measures "will be integral parts" of the return-to-work policy being developed by a group of state representatives.
"We'll continue to work through the legal and logistical challenges that are unique to being a large legislative body. More details on this policy will be communicated with the House as it becomes available," the statement said.
Senate President Karen Spilka also applauded Baker for "issuing a strong vaccination mandate," saying his move "underscores the message that vaccination is our best tool for ending the disruption and suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Spilka said she expects recommendations to land soon from a Senate working group that has been "meeting to discuss updated hybrid work policies, including a vaccine mandate and other policies guided by public health best practices and designed to keep Senate employees safe."
As lawmakers work to craft their own policies, some legislators are eyeing debate on the broader issue of vaccine mandates.
Spencer Republican Rep. Peter Durant last week filed a bill (HD 4416) that would prohibit requiring COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of entry to the state, public buildings, schools, businesses or places of public accommodation. In an email to his colleagues inviting cosponsors to the bill — eight other Republican representatives had signed on as of Thursday — Durant said it was not about the vaccines' effectiveness but about "the rights of people in the privacy of their personal decisions and their medical condition or conditions."
Baker's office said executive branch employees will also be required to obtain COVID-19 booster shots once federal guidance is issued to make those part of the vaccine regimen.
Executive department employees who are not vaccinated or approved for an exemption by the Oct. 17 deadline "will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination," Baker's office said. The administration plans to work with unions on the policy and the "specific ramifications of non-compliance" for staff who are represented by unions.
The human services worker union SEIU 509, which represents more than 8,000 state workers, said it "unequivocally supports" Baker's vaccine mandate and will bargain with the state "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," SEIU Local 509 President Peter MacKinnon and Treasurer Israel Pierre said in a statement. "With emergency sick leave set to expire on September 30th, we urge Governor Baker and the Legislature to do the right thing and guarantee sick leave to receive and recover from the vaccine or COVID exposure. We need this guarantee in place for every worker in our Commonwealth, not just state employees."
Earlier this month, the Baker administration mandated that long-term care workers in Massachusetts get fully vaccinated by Oct. 10.
Baker had previously expressed a reluctance to impose a vaccine mandate on public workers, saying he preferred to first focus on expanding access to the vaccines and communicating that they are safe and effective.
In March, he said he didn't "think you should put somebody in a position where they have to choose between a vaccine that they may be very concerned about taking for some very good reasons, and their job, at least not at this point in the process."
Baker's comments this spring came after Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing said he believes vaccines should be mandatory in order for state police, teachers and first responders to stay on the job.
Bump, Goldberg, Healey and Janey have all laid out plans requiring employees to undergo regular COVID-19 testing if they do not provide proof of vaccination.
"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 of Baker's mandate.
Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association President and CEO Steve Walsh said Baker's order "comes as hospitals are grappling with renewed challenges such as workforce shortages, a worsening behavioral health boarding crisis, and treating patients who have delayed care during the pandemic."
"Massachusetts continues to lead the way in vaccinations, and mandatory policies are helping us become among the most protected places in the world," Walsh said.