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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Employers’ Vaccine Mandates Upheld in Massachusetts

Last week, a Federal Judge in Boston denied the motion of two hundred and twenty-nine Massachusetts General Brigham employees who sought an injunction to prevent the company from enforcing its vaccine mandate.  Prior to that, the Court ruled against a group of Massachusetts correction officers who similarly asked for an injunction on the vaccination mandate.  Putting aside the hot button question as to whether or not employers should be able to mandate vaccinations for its employees (of which there are strong arguments both for and against), the reality is that a large number of employees in Massachusetts are going to be facing a decision that they do not want to have to make: get the vaccine or lose their job.

Massachusetts General Brigham employees approximately 77,000 people across its hospital network, so the two hundred and twenty-nine employees that joined in the Court case to try and block the mandate represents a very small fraction of its total workforce.  In fact, Massachusetts General Brigham estimates that over ninety-five percent of its employee base has been at least partially vaccinated.  However, at a time where employers across the country are having difficulty getting workers, it is hard to imagine an employer willingly letting two hundred and twenty-nine qualified employees go.  However, on November 5, 2021, that is exactly what Massachusetts General Brigham may do (at least for any employee who has not at least received his or her first vaccination shot).  These employees have already been on unpaid leave since the Court’s ruling last week.  Justice F. Dennis Saylor stated that “There certainly is no issue that there is a human cost, or potential costs to this, but of course some of that inevitably falls under the heading of living with the consequences of one’s choices.”

 

Massachusetts General Brigham is one of many hospitals systems in Massachusetts (including Southcoast Health, Beth Israel Lahey Health and UMass Memorial Health and Wellforce) that have instituted a mandatory vaccination.  To date, the Courts have ruled in favor of the employers right to institute the vaccination policies.

Employees do have the option of requesting a medical or religious exemption to their employer’s vaccine mandates.  However, if the employer can show that allowing such an exemption would pose an undue hardship on the employer, they do not have to grant the exemption.  Medical personnel who interact with the public have had difficulties obtaining such exemptions (as opposed to workers who can do their jobs in front of their computers from the comfort of their own home).

This ultimately leads to a difficult, but straightforward dilemma for employees.  If an employee does not follow the employer’s vaccine mandate, they can be classified as voluntarily resigning from his or her position.  As if losing their job was not enough, employees may also be denied unemployment benefits for “voluntarily” resigning their positions.  Therefore, the question that employees must ask themselves (at least in the short term) is what is more important to them: standing strong on their decision not to be vaccinated or avoid being unemployed without unemployment benefits.  While there are ethical, medical, religious, and emotional elements that come into play, from a legal standpoint (at least as of the date of this article), that is the fundamental question that all employees must ask themselves when making their decision on how to handle an employer’s vaccination mandate.

Of note, it is important for employers to remember that they need to treat all employees equally.  Employers should not allow one employee’s medical or religious exemption and deny another similarly situated employees medical or religious exemption.  Treating similarly situated employees differently can open up employers to litigation and claims that they otherwise could have avoided.

If you have questions regarding an employers’ vaccination mandate, please contact the Law Offices of Samuel S. Reidy for a free consultation.


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