NYC requires vaccine for cops, firefighters, municipal workers

Michael R. Sisak and Michelle L. Price
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — New York City will require its entire municipal workforce to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be placed on unpaid leave, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday, giving an ultimatum to public employees, including police officers and firefighters who have refused the shots and ensuring a fight with some unions representing them.

The Democrat gave approximately 46,000 unvaccinated city employees until Nov. 1 to get their first vaccine dose, and he offered an incentive: City workers who get a shot by Oct. 29 at a city-run vaccination site will get an extra $500 in their paycheck.

“My job as your mayor is to keep this city safe, keep this city healthy. And vaccination is the way,” he said.

Unions representing some city employees immediately castigated the mandates as an unfair invasion of personal privacy.

New York City’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, said getting vaccinated is a “personal medical decision” officers should make in consultation with their doctors.

“Now that the city has moved to unilaterally impose a mandate, we will proceed with legal action to protect our members’ rights,” said its president, Pat Lynch.

The city previously mandated vaccines for public school teachers and the state has previously mandated vaccines for hospital workers.

With the expanded mandate, more than 300,000 city employees will need to be vaccinated, roughly 160,000 more than had previously been covered by vaccination rules. Jailers on Rikers Island, where the city has been grappling with staffing shortages creating unsafe conditions, won’t be subject to the mandate until Dec. 1.

De Blasio had been weighing a vaccine mandate for the police and fire departments and other city agencies for several weeks.

‘Inexcusable’ behavior: His announcement came amid new uproar over NYPD officers defying even simple measures, like wearing face masks. On Monday, two police officers were seen on video shoving a man out of a Manhattan subway station when he confronted them for flouting rules requiring they wear masks.

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said Wednesday the incident was “absolutely inexcusable” and that the officers would be disciplined, though he wouldn’t say how.

“Nobody’s getting fired over this incident, nobody’s getting suspended over this incident,” Shea told reporters. “But at the same time, I’m not in any way, shape, or form attempting to downplay that. I think we’re better than that, and I think the public deserves better than that.”

About 69% of the NYPD’s workforce is vaccinated, compared with 77.4% of adult New Yorkers who have been fully vaccinated. The NYPD has about 34,500 uniformed personnel and about 17,700 people in non-uniformed support positions.

More than 60 NYPD employees have died of COVID-19. The fire department, whose EMTs and paramedics were working around the clock in the early days of the pandemic, lost 16 workers to the virus.

Shea, who had COVID-19 in January, and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro have said they support a vaccine mandate. Shea told reporters earlier this month that given the “emergency situation that we’re in, it makes sense.” Nigro said at a fire department memorial service, “I think it’s time.”

Punishment: New York City’s mandate comes as other cities are starting to punish — even fire — first responders who fail to meet vaccine requirements.

In Seattle, six police officers and 11 firefighters are slated for termination after that city’s vaccine mandate took effect Monday. Another 93 Seattle officers and 66 firefighters were sidelined Tuesday while seeking religious or medical exemptions.

In Massachusetts, a police union said at least 150 state troopers are resigning over that state’s mandate. In Washington State, as of Tuesday, 127 state troopers have been fired for defying a vaccine mandate and another 32 have resigned or retired rather than getting vaccinated.

In Chicago, where city workers are required to log their vaccine status, Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week accused the president of that city’s police union of trying to “induce an insurrection” by encouraging officers to defy that requirement – even after the union’s former president died of COVID-19. The dispute is now in court.

Kate Andrias, a labor law professor at Columbia Law School, said there’s broad consensus among legal experts that employers have the right to mandate vaccinations, though, as de Blasio noted, the city’s union contracts could require negotiating precisely how it’s implemented.

“Ultimately, it is a mistake to see vaccine requirements as violating worker rights,” Andrias said, suggesting some employees are probably wary of getting close to unvaccinated colleagues.