Updated 3:45 pm
Fourteen Steamship Authority employees, some of them involved in a federal lawsuit against the ferry service, have been terminated after not following the mandate to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The 14 employees account for 3 percent of the SSA’s 525 employees, Sean Driscoll, a spokesman for the SSA, told The Times. “Currently everyone who is working for us either has a vaccine or has been granted an exemption (of which there have been fewer than 10 issued in total). All new employees, and those who are seasonal and will return to work this summer, will also have to comply with the policy,” Driscoll wrote in an email.
In March, a federal judge rejected the request for an injunction against the SSA. Driscoll said the terminations were made after that.
“I can confirm that a number of my clients received termination letters from the Steamship Authority in late March due to their refusal to comply with the Authority’s vaccine mandate,” attorney Patrick Daubert, who represents 11 of the employees, wrote in an email. “Each and every one of my clients performed their duties faithfully throughout the pandemic and several had worked for the Authority their entire adult lives, spanning multiple decades, up until they were suspended without pay in January of this year. Several of my clients did comply under duress with the mandate following their placement on unpaid suspension.”
Daubert referenced two studies he says questioned the efficacy of the vaccines. “It is unfortunate that the Authority adopted and ultimately enforced its vaccine mandate when it has become plain for all to see that none of the available vaccines prevent transmission of or infection by COVID-19,” Daubert wrote.
On Thursday, April 7, Daubert filed a notice of intent to appeal that lower court decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was assigned a docket number on Wednesday.
“All 11 of my clients are party to the notice of appeal to the First Circuit, which was filed one week ago on April 7th,” he wrote.
That appeal is in response to the March 10 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns denying an injunction that would have halted the Steamship Authority vaccination mandate.
The suit was filed in February by 11 employees of the Steamship Authority who claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate implemented by the ferry service violated their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. In the suit, one plaintiff said he practices “nature worship,” another alleged that the vaccine “takes its origin in abortion,” and another said she feared the shot “will kill me.” The suit was initially filed in Barnstable Superior Court, but was moved to federal court by the SSA because the employees claimed their constitutional rights had been violated.
The plaintiffs, dubbed the Steamship Employees for Medical Freedom, are listed in the lawsuit as Captain Albert Brox, Kim Fernandes, James Bondarek, Andrea Sheedy, Paul Menton, Christopher Ovaska, Mark Anderson, Timothy Richardson, Steven Ennis, Sonia Simoneau, and Jeffrey D’Amario. The plaintiffs hold a wide variety of jobs, such as captain, purser, parking lot cashier, terminal worker, oiler, ticket seller, and pilot.
The group of employees seek $31,500 in lost wages and $150,000 in anticipated lost wages, according to the suit.
Citing another judge’s conclusion, Stearn wrote in his decision “the Commonwealth (and, by extension the Authority) ‘is under no constitutional obligation to offer a religious exemption to its vaccine requirement.’”
In his decision, Stearns wrote that the objections were based on “philosophical, medical, or scientific beliefs, or personal fears or anxieties rather than bona fide religious practices.”
Stearns described the behavior of the employees as a “danger to the public,” particularly those who travel to and from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The COVID-19 vaccine mandate was announced in early January, and in less than a week the ferry service said it had compliance from 93 percent of the 511 full- and part-time employees who are required to get the vaccine. The SSA’s workforce expands to more than 700 employees during the busy summer season.
Employees were required to get their first dose of the vaccine by Jan. 6. The deadline for full vaccination was Wednesday, Feb. 16. The mandate came with a $500 incentive for SSA employees to get the shots, paid out of the ferry line’s general fund.
“We issued 551 vaccination incentive payments totaling $254,400,” Driscoll wrote. “In context, we were spending $12,500 a week to have medical professionals screen vessel employees prior to starting their shift, so from a cost-benefit analysis, the payback period for offering the incentives was less than half a year.”
Updated to include comments from Driscoll.