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FDNY ‘sickout’ intensifies drama over vaccine mandate

Associated Press-Mary Altaffer 
The commissioner of the New York City Fire Department said Monday that about 700 people were calling out sick per day, compared to about 200 people generally, as unions ramp up their opposition to vaccine mandates for city employees.

Battles have erupted between officials and first responders as COVID-19 vaccine mandates go into effect and unions representing workers ramp up their resistance to the requirements. 

In New York City, an irregular number of more than 2,000 firefighters took medical leave in a “sickout” over the past week as the vaccination deadline passed. In response, these first responders have faced accusations from officials that those misusing sick leave are neglecting their oath and endangering the safety of city residents. 

Worries have emerged that the move could be utilized beyond New York City and across the U.S. in a potential new phase of the pandemic. 

Brian Higgins, an adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the likelihood of what happened in New York being repeated across the country makes it “prudent” for departments to prepare for the possibility.

Such “sickouts” could contribute to staffing shortages, potentially leading to increased call response times and higher demand for overtime, straining the department and its first responders. 

“This is almost in some respects a game of chicken to see who blinks first,” he said. 

“All of these … police, firefighter unions — they talk to each other. They watch each other,” he added. “They’re getting a gauge of how this is going.”

New York City Fire Department (FDNY) Commissioner Daniel Nigro said on Monday that medical leave has “spiked” since the city unveiled the mandate, with about 700 people calling out sick per day, compared to about 200 people generally. A majority of those reporting to the medical office are unvaccinated.  

“Our fire officers’ union is not participating in this medical leave … but our firefighters most definitely are,” he said during a briefing. “I asked them to rethink this, to remember their oath of office.” 

Out of 350 units, 18 units were out of service on Monday — a number that could have been seen a month ago “on any given day.”

Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andrew Ansbro told The New York Times that there was no organized sickout, although he still criticized the mandate in a tweet. 

“By the commissioners own admission, the majority of members on sick leave are unvaccinated,” Ansbro said. “They would not be working because they were sent home by @NYCMayor de Blasio’s dangerous mandate. You can’t have it both ways. This crisis is clearly on the Mayor.”

Despite the outspoken pushback, a majority of FDNY employees, 82 percent, have gotten at least one vaccine dose, including 78 percent of firefighters. 

In total, New York reached 92 percent of city employees being vaccinated as of Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said, noting that in the 10 days since the mandate’s announcement, 24,000 more city employees got vaccinated. 

As of Tuesday morning, 2,000 more city employee vaccinations were recorded in the previous 24 hours “because people realized they weren’t getting paid,” de Blasio told MSNBC. 

“That number is going to keep going up,” he said during a Tuesday briefing. “It’s proof that vaccine mandates work, and this is how we move the city forward. This is the key to our recovery: vaccination.” 

Thousands of city employees have applied for exemptions, including for medical and religious reasons, which are being reviewed in a process that could “play out” over several weeks, the mayor said.

The vaccination rate in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) reached 85 percent as of Monday night, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea told Spectrum News NY1. Just 89 NYPD officers are on unpaid leave for not complying with the mandate, amounting to a quarter of a percent of officers. 

That small number has not disrupted the NYPD’s operations, Shea said, noting it’s “really status quo.” 

“When you look at where we are, we’re in really good shape,” he told NY1. “We want every one of those officers back to work. But for New Yorkers, there’s no real impact at all on public safety here.”

But the city is still facing a challenge from officers over the mandate after the police union, the New York City Police Benevolent Association, filed a lawsuit to overturn the vaccine mandate for police.

Other cities are dealing with union objections to vaccine requirements, including in Chicago, where a judge ruled this week that the city can’t enforce its end-of-year deadline for vaccines for officers until after arbitration with unions.

The situation is a bit more nuanced in Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) filed a lawsuit against the city last week disputing its testing policy for unvaccinated officers, rather than seeking to overturn the vaccine mandate as a whole.

But if the litigation is not successful and the city implements the current mandate, the union plans to inform its members that any sickout is illegal and any participants could face discipline from the department, LAPPL spokesperson Tom Saggau told The Hill. 

“We would work very, very hard to prevent a sickout,” he said.

“If our litigation fails, we think it would have a chilling effect on the ability of our members to ever get a fair shake out of city hall,” he added.

The Biden administration, which has announced vaccine requirements for federal workers and contractors, has touted mandates as effective, saying last month that businesses and organizations that instituted them saw an at least 20 percent increase in their vaccination rate.

The president has also unveiled his plan to institute a vaccinate-or-test mandate for all employers with at least 100 employees, although it’s still in the works. 

The defiance to mandates is not “just a firefighter, law enforcement issue,” Higgins of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice said, noting other occupations have seen reluctance to get the vaccine, although the first responder professionals are “very high profile right now.” 

“Painting cops and firefighters who don’t want to as just crazy far-right anti-vaxxers is a mistake,” he said.

Tags Bill de Blasio Brian Higgins FDNY

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