Suffolk Superior Court Allows Governor Baker’s Vaccine Mandate to Go Into Effect Despite Challenge from Police Union

On September 23, 2021, the Suffolk Superior Court issued a ruling in State Police Association of Massachusetts v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, et al. (No. 2184-CV-02117), allowing Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s October 17th deadline for mandatory vaccinations for all Commonwealth Executive employees to remain in effect. Siding with the Commonwealth, the Court denied motions from the State Police Association of Massachusetts (the “SPA” or “Union”) requesting a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order that would have paused the implementation of Executive Order 595 (the “Order”).

On August 19, 2021, Governor Baker issued the Order, which mandates the Human Resource Division (“HRD”) to establish a policy requiring that all employees of the Commonwealth’s Executive branch submit proof of full COVID-19 vaccination by October 17, 2021, as a condition of continued employment. The Order affects roughly 42,000 state employees. Notably, the policy is to allow for limited exemptions from the vaccine mandate for medical or religious reasons.

The day of the Order, the SPA – which represents roughly 1,800 members of the Department of State Police – issued a demand to bargain the impacts of the Order. On August 30, 2021, Commonwealth representatives met with members of the Union to discuss the Union’s proposed changes to the policy. These proposed changes included the option for Union members to engage in weekly testing, to be conducted while on-duty, and mask-wearing as an alternative to vaccination; treating October 17th as the date for starting, rather than completing, the vaccination process; and deeming any COVID-related illness suffered by a Union member as a line-of-duty injury, entitling the member to benefits.

On September 10, 2021, HRD sent an email to all Executive branch employees explaining how to verify vaccination and the date by which they would have to receive the first shot of a vaccine to comply with the mandate. In response, the Union wrote to Commonwealth representatives expressing concern that the mandate would go into effect without bargaining. The Commonwealth insisted that the October 17th deadline would not be changed.

Days later, the Union filed a Charge of Prohibited Practice with the Division of Labor Relations (“DLR”) and a complaint in Suffolk Superior Court seeking a declaration that the Commonwealth violated their obligation to bargain under G.L. c. 150 E, §10 and an injunction enjoining enforcement of the October 17th deadline until the parties negotiated to resolution or impasse.

In denying the Union’s request for an injunction, the Superior Court reasoned that neither the Union nor its members would suffer any irreparable harm from the mandate’s implementation and that the Union’s interest in effecting its right to bargain is outweighed by the Commonwealth’s more significant interest in protecting the health and safety of its workforce and the public.

This decision is important both for its holding that Commonwealth Executive employees must still submit proof of vaccination by October 17th and for its reasoning that the public interest in curbing the spread of COVID-19 outweighs the Union’s interest in effecting its right to bargain over the terms and conditions of employment. This reasoning may be used in other cases as precedent favoring employers’ vaccine mandates.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding the labor law implications of vaccine mandates, please contact us.