BOSTON — The state and local governments are requiring COVID-19 vaccines for workers as they try to tamp down a resurgence of the virus.
On Beacon Hill, at least three state agencies — the auditor’s, treasurer’s and attorney general’s offices— have said they will require employees to be vaccinated.
Attorney General Maura Healey says employees will be required to be fully vaccinated when they shift from remote work to their offices in September.
“With a more infectious variant and positive COVID cases on the rise, it’s clear that this pandemic is not over,” Healey said Wednesday.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump announced last week that employees in her office will be required to submit proof of vaccination or at least one negative test result on a weekly basis beginning Aug. 9. Mask wearing will be mandatory for staff without proof of vaccination, while it will be optional for others, she said.
Workers in all three state offices may ask for medical or religious exemptions to the requirement.
Meanwhile, a number of cities and towns are also looking at requiring workers to be vaccinated, especially those who routinely deal with the public.
In Boston, Mayor Kim Janey says her administration is discussing plans to require all 18,000 city employees to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
President Joe Biden plans to impose similar requirements on federal employees.
Legal experts say in Massachusetts the state and local governments have broad discretion to require workers to be vaccinated.
Joel Rosen, an Andover attorney who specializes in health care law, said the courts have repeatedly affirmed the ability of public and private sector employers to set vaccine mandates as a condition of employment.
“Governments are employers, who like private employers have an obligation to keep workers and the people they serve safe,” Rosen said.
As long as employers provide “well-recognized medical and religious exemptions” to the vaccinations, the mandates are on solid legal ground, he said.
Many large corporations are already requiring workers to be vaccinated. Nearly all of the state’s hospitals and have said they will require the vaccinate, as have private and public colleges, including all University of Massachusetts campuses.
Backing up employers is recent guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that says federal law doesn’t prevent employers from requiring proof of vaccination.
Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with more than 64% of the population fully vaccinated, but more than 2 million people haven’t gotten their shots yet.
State and local health officials are scrambling to reach those people as infections spike amid the prevalence of the highly contagious delta strain of the virus.
Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said he agrees that the vaccine mandates are backed up legally.
“There’s a lot legal precent for government mandated vaccinations,” he said. One of the prevailing cases involved a smallpox outbreak in the early 1900s in Cambridge.
Legal experts say mandates are likely to spur lawsuits — even if they may ultimately be unsuccessful.
And cities and towns will likely have to negotiate any such requirements with powerful labor unions that represent public sector workers.
“We strongly believe any policies regarding vaccinations must be done through collective bargaining,” said Jim Durkin, legislative director for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 35,000 workers.
“We want to make sure that the men and women we represent are treated fairly and that any concerns they have are addressed,” he said.
And it’s not clear if other branches of the state government will set vaccine mandates.
Gov. Charlie Baker has previously said he opposes vaccine “passports” and other mandates, and he won’t require the state’s workforce to get vaccinated.
House and Senate leaders, who are in recess until September, haven’t indicated if they will require legislative staff to be vaccinated when the Statehouse reopens.
Legal experts say vaccine mandates for the general public are unlikely, as it would raise privacy issues.
“That would be way beyond the red line,” Rosen said. “There’s a pretty wide gulf between schools and employers requiring vaccinations, and forced vaccinations.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.