First responder unions resist COVID-19 mandates for front line workers

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Thousands of police officers, paramedics and health care professionals who are at the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic are at risk of losing their jobs for not complying with newly implemented mandates to be vaccinated against the infectious disease.

Backlash against vaccine mandates is coming from unions representing first responders who are challenging whether elected officials can lawfully force employees to disclose medical information.  

{mosads}That notion is being tested around the country, with some objections starting to make their way through the legal system.

As recently as last week, the Chicago Police Department told its employees that unvaccinated officers could not only lose their jobs but also put their retirement benefits at risk.

The police memo came after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced in August that all city personnel must be vaccinated by Oct. 15. It was met with resistance by Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara who had called for police officers to defy the mayor’s order. 

In Seattle, Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan told an NBC affiliate last week that the city’s vaccine mandate for its employees is “unreasonable” and “void of common sense.” Solan called for accommodations for officers who won’t take the shot.

The Massachusetts state police union has said at least 150 officers have resigned or submitted paperwork intending to do so because of the mandate, which puts noncompliant employees in line to be suspended or fired.

This fight between union leaders and city officials began when President Biden in September imposed stringent vaccine mandates on federal workers, employees of large companies and health care professionals, the latter of which impacted more than 17 million people employed at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

The White House also announced a mandate that all companies with at least 100 employees require vaccines or weekly testing for employees. The administration’s emergency rule is being developed by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the agency submitted the initial text of it to the Office of Management and Budget.

In the meantime, the White House has pressed companies to get ahead of the federal mandate and impose their own requirements, touting companies such as United Airlines and Tyson’s Foods that have already done so.

When it comes to officers on the front line, the Biden administration has pushed back on criticism that a vaccine mandate could mean more police walking off the job.

“More than 700,000 people have died of COVID … it was the No. 1 cause of death among police departments and police officers. It’s something that we should take seriously,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week. “Departments are trying to save people in their departments, people who work for them.” 

Despite the pushback from the Seattle police officers guild, Psaki pointed to the city as a successful example for its more than 90 percent vaccination rate within the police force and among firefighters. 

When it comes to the National Fraternal Order of Police, which boasts a membership of around 355,000 sworn law enforcement officers in more than 2,000 chapters across the country, its take on vaccines is that while they are proven to work, “whether or not to accept the vaccine is a personal decision,” according to the union’s statement on vaccines.

The union reported that at least 749 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty from COVID-19 as of the week of last Friday. 

Meanwhile, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents nurses and other first responders in health care, has called vaccine mandates “an important and powerful tool.” The union said, as of earlier this month, that 81 percent of its members are vaccinated.

“I’m proud to share that SEIU has resolved to call for universal vaccination as part of our effort to #protectallworkers. Vaccines are essential to protect workers & mandates are a powerful tool to reach universal vaccination,” SEIU President Mary Key Henry said on Twitter.

But at individual health care facilities, resistance against the vaccine is real. 

{mossecondads}The largest health care provider in New York state, Northwell Health, fired 1,400 workers this month because they didn’t comply with the state’s vaccine mandate. Those employees represented almost 2 percent of the workforce and after firing them, Northwell Health touted that their workforce was 100 percent vaccinated.

Many cities and localities have imposed their own mandates, leading some first responder unions to call for delays in implementation and keeping their medical history to themselves.

Baltimore City employees must show proof they’re vaccinated or undergo weekly testing starting earlier this month. In response, Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 requested a delay on the mandate and Baltimore’s police union told its officers to not disclose their vaccination status. 

Baltimore’s police union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Office of the Labor Commissioner. In Allegheny County, Pa., the police association filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board after the county executive said all employees must be vaccinated by Dec. 1.

In Providence, R.I., a vaccine mandate for health care workers, including EMTs went into effect Oct. 1. The Providence Fire Fighters and Rhode Island Association of Firefighters however asked for the mandate to be reconsidered, arguing the Providence Fire Department stood to lose 10 percent of its workforce.

Lawsuits are also piling up on the issue of whether employees can be required to take the COVID-19 vaccine meaning resolutions on the matter are also being tied up in court. 

In Minnesota, 180 health care workers filed a lawsuit against 24 health institutions to block the enforcement of vaccine mandates. The lawsuit argues that such policies are a breach of religious freedom and other laws on both the state and federal level.

Zachary Schonfeld contributed to this report.

Tags Biden COVID-19 Front Lines Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Catanzara Lori Lightfoot vaccine mandates
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