Massachusetts COVID-19 vaccine mandate took effect, religious exemption explained

COVID-19 vaccine injection. (Photo by Mat Napo/Unsplash)

By Cici Yu
Boston University News Service

Nearly two weeks after the Baker administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate went into effect, the state suspended hundreds of state employees, including state police officers, correction officers, public transit workers, and more for not complying.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s office released data on Oct. 29 saying, in total, 362 state employees are serving 5- or 10-day suspensions for not verifying they are vaccinated or seeking a religious or medical exemption.

The State Police Association of Massachusetts has fought against the vaccine mandate. 

Chris Keohan, the spokesperson for the police union, said the union is having issues with not allowing reasonable accommodations such as regular tests like most other cities in the country are offering.

“No discipline has come down on any troopers as far as I know,” he said. “I can tell you that 196 applied for religious waivers, and 14 applied for medical waivers, and many of them are still awaiting a response from the administration.”

The Diversity Officer or American Disabilities Act coordinator will “engage in a good-faith interactive process” to determine whether to grant the exemption or not, according to state rules

Across the state, the Boston Globe reported, 2,138 employees are still waiting for a decision on a medical or religious exemption.

“If all waivers are denied, as has been rumored, we are already significantly short-staffed,” Keohan said. “If we lose 150-200 members to this there’s going to be a significant impact to public safety.”

In a hearing on vaccine requirements and employee accommodations, Doron Dorfman, an associate professor of law from Syracuse University, testified before members of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee that medical and religious exemptions of COVID-19 vaccine should be allowed in limited cases. 

In general, for private or state employees, he said an employee should be able to request an exemption from his employer by writing a letter, submitting an exemption form and providing documents to support the request.  

“EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has guidance for employers on how to determine who is eligible for exemption,” Dorfman said in the interview.

On Aug.18, Pope Francis and Bishops across North and South America joined to urge people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Getting vaccinated is an act of love for all, especially the most vulnerable,” Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes said in the video message.

Jarone Lee, an emergency medical specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the discussion around the vaccine mandate comes down to freedom of religion. 

“A lot of conversation seems like it is less on the religious side, and more on other concerns that the patient has, especially with a lot of the misinformation from different sources that they get it from,” Lee said.

In the testimony, Rep. Bobby Scott asked about how to deal with religious exemption when vaccine hesitancy is not religious but political.

Dorfman said looking at the consistency of the claim is a way to determine whether the applicant “sincerely held religious beliefs.” 

“For example, if an employee actually allows for certain vaccinations and not others, that is inconsistent,” he said. “And it indicates that it’s not a sincere religious belief.”

“Asking employees to provide a letter from a religious leader that can support the request is another way to tease out whether it is a sincere religious belief,” Dorfman said.

Dorfman said employees’ religious exemption can be denied based on the “undue hardship” factor, meaning the accommodation would pose a significant difficulty or expense on a given agency.

“Anything more than a ‘de minimis cost’ to the employer is going to be considered an undue hardship and will allow the employer not to accommodate,” Dorfman said to members of Congress during the hearing. “When we are talking about cost, we are talking about the risk to other employees of getting COVID-19 and we are also talking about the ability of the employer to conduct their business properly.” 

One of the “undue hardships” comes from the sheer volume of requests submitted, he said in the interview.

Lee said he believes people should have a choice when they can.

“Knowing that the vaccine is very safe, also knowing that folks who will want an exemption [can] file for an exemption,” he said.

Based on the employment commission guidelines, unvaccinated employees may be accommodated in several ways — including wearing a face mask, working at a social distance from coworkers or nonemployees, working a modified shift, working remotely, through telework, or accepting a reassignment — as long as they do not pose a direct threat or undue hardship to the employer. 

The Baker administration requires executive department employees to be fully vaccinated, refusing permit weekly testing as a substitute for vaccination.

Keohan said the union is not anti-vaccination — somewhere between 85% and 90% of all state troopers are vaccinated.

“There’s just a small percentage that is looking for either a waiver or reasonable accommodations and we think that is a reasonable ask,” Keohan said. “Particularly for an extremely short-staffed police force like ours.”

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