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Judge denies Mass. correction officers' injunction against vaccine mandate

A federal judge has denied state correction officers union request for a preliminary injunction against Gov. Charlie Baker's coronavirus vaccine mandate, which goes into effect Sunday.

The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union (MCOFU) claimed the mandate is unconstitutional and violates their collective bargaining rights.

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Hillman's ruling said the request does not meet legal standards for a preliminary injunction and the greater public interest prevails over correction officers' potential job losses if they refuse to get vaccinated.

"Even considering the economic impact on the Plaintiffs if they choose not to be
vaccinated, when balancing that harm against the legitimate and critical public interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the vaccination rate, particularly in congregate facilities, the Court finds the balance weighs in favor of the broader public interests,"Hillman wrote in his ruling. issued Friday afternoon.

In a letter to Hillman filed Friday, attorney James Lamond, who is representing the union, said that precise numbers of unvaccinated prison correction officers are not available. But he wrote that during a recent labor-management meeting, the DOC said 1,411 officers are not vaccinated — more than 40% of the union's 3,300 members.

National Guard members have been training at state prisons this week in case of staffing shortages. On Tuesday, Gov. Baker activated 250 Guard members to help at state prisons. The Department of Correction says it is calling in some retired correction officers to help as well.

"Contingency plans have been put into place to pursue a continuity of operations across all DOC facilities so programming and services for inmates may continue," the DOC said in an emailed statement. "The Department of Correction (DOC) appreciates the large number of staff who have submitted their vaccination attestation forms and continues to encourage staff to comply with the requirement."

Representatives from the union did not respond to requests seeking comment on the ruling.

Baker issued the mandate in August. It requires some 42,000 executive department workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 17 or seek an exemption for religious or medical reasons. If someone refuses, they face discipline up to and including termination.

The governor's office said most employees have completed the process of verifying their vaccination status, and state employees should report to work Monday, Oct. 18, when managers will contact those who have not complied to find out why.

“The Baker-Polito Administration is encouraged by the response 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," said an emailed statement from the governor's office. "To date, over 40,000 Executive Department employees have submitted the attestation form or applied for an exemption, and the Administration is continuing to gather information from employees.”

Last month, a judge denied a similar motion filed by a Massachusetts State Police union.

Prisoners' advocates and attorneys say the vaccine mandate is necessary in correctional settings, where distancing is not possible and the virus can spread.

"Those charged with caring for incarcerated people should and must be vaccinated. They can bring COVID into our jails and prisons, and they can bring it out into the community," said a statement from Anthony Benedetti, Chief Counsel for the state public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services. "This issue also affects the health and safety of the many defense attorneys who go to these facilities to fight for the rights of their clients."

The latest report to the state Supreme Judicial Court on the coronavirus in state correctional facilities indicates that there are no active covid cases in state prisons. The report says in county jails, there are active cases involving 10 prisoners and eight correction officers. The jails affected are in Bristol, Berkshire, Hampden, Middlesex, Plymouth and Suffolk counties.

The reports to the state indicate that since the pandemic began, two men held in county jails and 21 DOC prisoners have died from COVID-19. That does not include two men who were granted medical parole shortly before their deaths from COVID so they were no longer considered in DOC custody.

Related:

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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