In a landmark decision, an independent arbitrator has ruled that the Massachusetts State Police must reinstate seven troopers who were suspended for refusing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The troopers’ union, which negotiated on their behalf, hailed the ruling as a “victory” and a validation of its claim that the officers were unfairly treated by former Governor Charlie Baker.
The troopers, who had been on unpaid leave, will now have the option to return to work with retroactive pay, thanks to the arbitrator’s verdict.
The controversy began when former Baker issued a vaccine mandate in August 2021 for over 40,000 state employees, including troopers. The mandate required proof of COVID-19 vaccination by mid-October or potential termination. While Baker allowed for religious and health-based exemptions, the State Police Association of Massachusetts — the union representing the majority of state troopers — contested the mandate in court, although its request to strike it down was denied.
Over 150 troopers applied for religious exemptions, all of which were denied by the department. The union argued that the department had failed to provide reasonable accommodations for the troopers’ religious beliefs.
“[Baker’s vaccine mandate] was more than just an affront to the hard-working members of the Mass State Police, it was an attack on organized labor and the rights of our members,” the union said in a press release.
Some troopers resigned over the mandate, but the department suspended others in late 2021 for not receiving the vaccine, and later attempted to discharge seven of them. A judge interceded in 2022 to prevent them from being fired, leaving them on unpaid suspension during the long legal battle.
The union’s president, Patrick McNamara, said that the central issue was the denial of a reasonable accommodation for the troopers’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
“Charlie Baker discriminated against our members, our members that were found to have a sincerely held religious belief, and we were victorious to prove that,” McNamara stated.
The arbitrator’s ruling also highlighted that the State Police had violated a collective bargaining agreement by summarily dismissing the troopers without properly reviewing their requests for religious exemptions.
According to the union, the decision underscored the importance of accommodating religious beliefs and the failure of the department to provide reasonable options.
McNamara also noted the stress endured by the troopers during their period of unpaid suspension.
“These troopers have endured immense suffering and emotional distress while suspended,” McNamara said.
The reinstated troopers now face the choice of whether to return to their positions within the Massachusetts State Police. The arbitrator’s ruling also includes retroactive pay and earned seniority to make them whole for the period they were sidelined, according to the union head.
Police union attorney Leah Barrault said the organization is currently engaged in a legal battle on behalf of 13 other troopers who were fired or dishonorably discharged due to being unvaccinated and failing to obtain an exemption.
“We’re confident with those facts and that those outcomes will be the same,” Barrault stated.
David Procopio, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts State Police, confirmed that the agency is working on implementing the arbitrator’s decision, determining the necessary administrative and legal steps.
Current Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey eventually lifted the vaccine mandate in May, marking the end of a contentious chapter in Massachusetts’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.