Hundreds of state workers are seeking exemptions from Governor Charlie Baker's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to one of the commonwealth's largest unions.
With Sunday's immunization deadline looming, the Baker administration is casting its vaccine requirement as a success, saying Massachusetts state "agencies are seeing significant progress toward the vaccination goal."
But some unions have warned that some workers would rather quit or be fired than comply with the vaccine mandate, potentially leaving some agencies understaffed as early as next week.
And some are criticizing the state's process of reviewing waiver applications, including at least one labor union that generally supports the vaccine mandate.
"There hasn't been a consistent, uniform process for how these situations are going to be reviewed," said Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU Local 509, which represents about 8,500 state workers and endorsed Baker's vaccine mandate. "What we're hearing anecdotally is that one agency is applying this set of criteria for exemption requests, whereas another agency is applying a different set of criteria. It shouldn't be that way."
In August, Baker signed an order directing roughly 42,000 executive-branch employees and contractors to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 17, unless they receive a medical or religious exemption.
Unvaccinated workers who do not receive waivers face unpaid suspensions and could ultimately lose their jobs. And workers who quit or are terminated over vaccine mandates likely cannot collect unemployment insurance, the state has advised.
MacKinnon of the SEIU Local 509 said administration officials told him during recent negotiations that about 2% of workers have requested vaccine waivers. A Baker spokesman declined to confirm the figure or say how many workers have refused to comply with the order.
"The Baker-Polito administration is encouraged by the response to date by executive department employees completing the vaccination verification process ahead of the Oct. 17 deadline and will continue to work with employees to address questions and requests for exemptions," press secretary Terry MacCormack said in a statement.
The vaccine mandate for employees of the commonwealth is tougher than requirements imposed on many other public sector workers in Massachusetts. Employees of the city of Boston, for example, can opt for weekly testing instead. Nevertheless, the city said it placed hundreds of unvaccinated city workers on unpaid leave this week because they have yet to agree to testing.
State workers seeking vaccine waivers had to submit applications by Oct. 8. The state has not specified which medical conditions or religious beliefs qualify for exemptions, but rather has charged several dozen diversity and disability specialists with leading an "interactive process" to determine the eligibility of each waiver applicant.
Reviews could include requests for medical records and interviews with petitioners' doctors or faith leaders, according to the state's application forms.
"We have repeatedly pressed the state negotiators for information about the standards applied in judging requests for exemptions on medical and religious grounds," local leaders of the National Association of Government Employees told members in a blog post. "The commonwealth has been unable to give us any clear guidance regarding the criteria that will be used."
WBUR contacted nine application reviewers; none agreed to describe the process.
For governments and other organizations, judging the merits of vaccine objections can be fraught and lead to lawsuits.
A federal judge recently dismissed a challenge to the University of Massachusetts's vaccine mandate, ruling against a Catholic student who sought a religious exemption. The Vatican last year said it is "morally acceptable" to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
At least two unions have gone to court to challenge the Baker administration's order. The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union is asking a federal court to delay the mandate. The State Police Association of Massachusetts made the same request in state court and lost.
Support for vaccine mandates is high in Massachusetts, according to a recent survey conducted by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public's Policy Preferences Across States. Eighty-one percent of Massachusetts adults say vaccines should be required for people boarding planes, and three-quarters back a universal mandate.