The union representing Massachusetts State Police troopers this weekend accused Gov. Charlie Baker of undercutting law enforcement and putting lives at risk over his COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which covers troopers and other executive branch personnel, including many who face termination after being denied exemptions despite state-verified medical and religious concerns.
In a statement shared on Facebook, State Police Association of Massachusetts President Michael Cherven noted that more than 85% of the force has been vaccinated. Other troopers have sought “reasonable accommodations,” including submitting to weekly testing and wearing masks, but have been denied.
“Whoever is making these decisions would rather usher out centuries worth of experience in order to implement his mandate while knowing that his decision are exacerbating an already critical shortage of state troopers,” Cherven said. “These willful attacks on public safety personnel and the continued rushed planning around the COVID-19 pandemic [are] putting lives at risk.”
The union’s statement comes after multiple lawsuits to halt Baker’s mandate failed in court. As of last Sunday, more than 40,000 executive branch workers and contractors were required to get fully vaccinated or file paperwork for an exemption on religious or medical grounds.
Multiple state employees have told MassLive that they were denied an accommodation to continue working unvaccinated despite demonstrating “sincerely held religious” beliefs to officials in recent weeks.
Cherven highlighted an example of a medical exemption request being denied.
Sgt. Stephen Candito — a trooper for 17 years who serves on the Gang Unit and experienced a severe reaction to a vaccine while in the Air Force — has “a well-documented history of vaccine waivers from some of the most prestigious hospitals in the world … [including] Walter Reed Medical Center,” the union said.
Supervisors recently informed Candito that he had a “clear case” of needing a waiver, and that he’d received preliminary approval so long as he wore a mask and tested weekly.
But on Friday night — “under the cover of darkness,” the union said — the sergeant became one of “dozens” of troopers to receive notifications from the state that they faced discipline, up to termination, if they did not get vaccinated.
Cherven called it “outrageous” that “decorated veterans” were being shown the door, and that unlike other municipalities and states, Baker’s vaccine requirement apparently doesn’t allow for accommodations such as testing and masking up — even if medically necessary reasons for not getting a vaccine are shown.
Union leaders and state employees say the state and employers across the nation are relying on federal guidance on discrimination to determine whether granting accommodations poses an “undue hardship” on an agency. State officials should consider public safety, health, security, costs and impacts to staff before granting an accommodation, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Employees who deal face-to-face with the public on a day-to-day basis — even if they demonstrate sincere religious beliefs or medical reasons — can be denied based on the “undue hardship” factor over safety and health concerns during the pandemic, based on EEOC guidance.
The vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have proven effective at blunting the virus and significantly reduced the number of new cases and hospitalizations across the state and country.
Breakthrough cases of vaccinated people occur, though they are far less likely to be severe cases leading to hospitalization or death. The overwhelming majority of people still being hospitalized and dying of COVID-19 in Massachusetts and the U.S. are unvaccinated.
“The simple truth is … [vaccines] have proven their worth over and over and over again,” Baker told reporters last Monday. “States that have high vaccination rates have low hospitalization rates, states that have low vaccination rates have high hospitalization rates. It’s the simplest thing to see.”
Baker administration officials have said they’re reviewing waiver requests on a rolling, case-by-case basis, and that they’re treating employees equally. They also say they do not expect major staffing shortages. Last Monday, Baker noted that new state police recruits were soon to graduate the academy.
But several state workers in multiple departments, including the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Developmental Services, recently told MassLive that they fear already overburdened staff will take on even more duties when potentially dozens of workers across the executive branch are fired as a result of the mandate.
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