The Steamship Authority’s vaccine mandate seemed to come out of nowhere last week. We were tipped off to it on Tuesday morning by a commenter, and were able to ask about it during the port council meeting. Shortly after that meeting adjourned, a press release was issued announcing the vaccine mandate, including a $500 incentive paid for by the ferry line’s passengers for full- and part-time employees to get the jab.
This is the second time during the COVID-19 pandemic where it has taken outside forces for the SSA to do the right thing. When mask mandates were being implemented elsewhere to slow the spread of the virus, the SSA insisted it needed the governor to require them in order to put a mandate into effect on the ferries. When that happened, the SSA implemented the required mask mandate. While pursers announce the requirement daily during crossings, and there are signs on the ferries and in the terminals, the mandate is loosely enforced. At meetings, general manager Robert Davis frequently relays to the SSA board how much of a challenge it is to get people to mask up.
The Island community lives on best when we’re doing what we can to support each other. It’s a shame that it’s necessary to pay what amounts to a bounty to force some individuals to do what’s best for the common good.
Going to work without a vaccine these days is akin to riding a motorcycle without a helmet. You can do it (not legally in Massachusetts), but it’s not a smart or healthy move. We shouldn’t have to legislate helmets for motorcycles, but we do because some people just don’t understand the importance of taking safety precautions.
What is truly remarkable about the mandate announced last week by the SSA is that the initial deadline to be vaccinated was just two days after the announcement. Why? Well, it appears to be all about the money.
In his comments during the port council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 4, Davis provided a window into the timing. “We’ve been following the governor’s order involving vaccination requirements for state workers,” Davis told The Times. “We’re also cognizant of the president’s order regarding employers with over 100 employees. And we also understand that the potential for future federal funding will be tied to having a mandate.”
In the executive order mandating vaccines, President Biden set Jan. 4 as a deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated. So it doesn’t appear that the SSA’s last-minute push to get employees to vaccinate meets that mandate. The SSA might argue they were negotiating with their unions right up until the deadline, and met the spirit of the mandate.
It’s unclear if Biden’s executive order will withstand legal challenge. We asked Jack Fruchtman, a frequent Times contributor and a retired constitutional professor, what he thinks the chances are that Biden’s mandate will be upheld.
“The Court is not yet dealing with the constitutional issue on the merits of the order. It is only a procedural question of whether the mandate should be stayed while arguments proceed,” Fruchtman wrote. “I suspect we will have an answer to that question very soon. Maybe even this week. I would be jarred to learn that the Court did decide more than that for now. But for this set of justices, who knows?”
Fruchtman further explained why the president believes he has the ability to impose such a mandate. “The Biden administration claims it does possess the authority under the enabling legislation that created OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, signed into law, by the way, by Richard Nixon,” he wrote. “Under the law, as written, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created by the act, has the authority to ensure worker safety and health, especially under emergency conditions.”
Conservative lawmakers and business leaders see OSHA’s involvement as overreach, he explained.
“Here, mandated by the President, OSHA is prepared to issue the order. But business leaders, especially the Federation of Independent Business, which initially challenged Obamacare as overreach in 2012, claim the lack of authority, and have gone so far to say that OSHA has no expertise in pandemics, respiratory disease, or virology,” Fruchtman wrote. “Meantime, most conservative members of the Court want to curb the authority of agencies like OSHA, and I suspect that if the Court does meet the challenge on its merits, it will disallow the mandate. Just a prediction. What we have here is scientific and medical facts versus political decisionmaking, and the latter will ultimately win out.”
Keeping our fellow citizens healthy shouldn’t be a political issue. We shouldn’t need the government to step in and say that vaccines are mandatory and the employees shouldn’t need financial incentive to do their part, but clearly it’s what the administration at the SSA and a small percentage of their employees needed to spur them into action.
And that’s disappointing, yet again.