Mass. refuses to excuse most workers from COVID vaccine mandate
Massachusetts has denied 89% of the requests it has received for exemptions to a vaccine mandate covering most state workers, according to a state data report obtained by WBUR.
The report, which WBUR received last week after a public records request, shows the state has approved just 256 of the more than 2,300 requests it received for medical or religious waivers to rules requiring workers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Those figures exclude additional cases where workers withdrew their requests.
The governor's office has said close to 1,000 workers resigned or were fired because of the vaccine mandate, but it has provided little information about the number of workers who were approved for exceptions. The mandate went into effect in October.
It's not clear why the state approved hundreds of the waivers, while denying the rest. The state refused to provide copies of the actual applications or the reasons they contained, citing a law to protect workers' privacy, even after WBUR suggested deleting the employee names and other personal information from the documents. WBUR has appealed the denial to the Secretary of State's office.
Gov. Charlie Baker's office said in a statement it considers exemption requests on a case-by-case basis.
The union that represents state troopers, the State Police Association of Massachusetts, unsuccessfully sued to block the mandate, but is still seeking alternatives for workers who want to remain on the job without getting vaccinated, such as wearing masks or getting tested regularly.
Union president Patrick McNamara pointed out that Baker has opposed a vaccine mandate to enter the State House and announced that students and staff at public schools will no longer have to wear masks starting next month, even though many are unvaccinated. So he questioned the need for the strict vaccine mandate for employees.
"We're pulling back mask mandates and we're looking at all the policy changes and and looking at the governor not requiring, potentially, vaccine mandates to come to the State House," McNamara said. "Yet, we'll fire dozens of troopers because of an executive order? It's just it's deplorable."
Employees working for the state police submitted more than 190 requests for exemptions, but fewer than 15 were granted, according to the state data.
The data also shows it received more than 600 requests for exemption to the state mandate from workers at the Department of Correction, more than any other department. The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents 4,000 corrections officers, is suing the state in federal court seeking to block the vaccine mandate. The union did not respond to requests for comment.
The vast majority of requests the state received were for religious exemptions, rather than medical waivers.
The initial data suggests that the state has been less willing to grant vaccination waivers than the city of Boston. The city told WBUR it had denied 59% of the religious and medical exemptions it had reviewed as of last week. However, Boston said it had yet to process most of the 360 exemptions it received.
Boston's vaccine mandate, however, remains on hold, while an appellate court reviews a lawsuit filed by several employee unions. In addition, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston Teachers Union struck an agreement to allow unvaccinated teachers to continue working during periods when COVID case counts are low, so long as they agree to be tested twice a week, and would be able to use accrued leave during COVID spikes.
But Wu has been unable to reach a similar agreement with public safety unions. The four public safety unions representing police and firefighters sent an open letter to Wu last week criticizing the negotiations so far, claiming the city has "walked away from the table."