(Bloomberg) -- Police unions in America’s biggest cities are resisting Covid-19 vaccination mandates, placing the officers they represent at odds with their task of protecting residents.
The New York City Police Benevolent Association, representing 24,000 uniformed cops, said it will legally challenge Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mandate for all city employees, hours after it was announced on Wednesday. About a third of Chicago’s police department as of Tuesday hadn’t complied with the city’s order to report their vaccination status last week. In Los Angeles, the city council may extend its mandate deadline as more than 3,000 officers remain unvaccinated.
The labor standoff with recalcitrant employees comes during a global pandemic that has left many cities struggling to fill open roles. Private and public employers have faced more than 30 challenges to expanding mandates in federal court so far this year, but they’ve largely stood up to those legal tests.
“The government has the overriding interest of keeping the country healthy, and that trumps the individual’s right to say no,” said Michael Barasch, managing partner at New York City law firm Barasch & McGarry. “The unions can sue, but in my opinion, based on hundreds of years of precedent, they’re going to lose.”
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New York City’s mandate eliminates a testing option and requires 160,500 workers get a first shot by Oct. 29 or face unpaid leave. The NYPD said 71% of its 55,000 employees, which include civilians and uniformed officers, have received the vaccine, though it declined to provide rates for officers alone. In a statement, the NYPD said it continues to provide vaccines and urge employees to get shots.
In Chicago, nearly 68% of the city’s police department employees had responded with their vaccinated status, Superintendent David Brown said on Tuesday. That means around 4,000 of the 12,770 sworn and civilian employees of the department missed the Oct. 15 deadline to enter the information into a city portal. Of those who have reported, about 82% are vaccinated, according to Brown.
Last week, a judge ordered John Catanzara Jr., president of Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge #7, to stop urging officers on social media to defy the city’s requirement to report their status. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had argued that Catanzara was jeopardizing public safety and encouraging a work stoppage by telling officers to snub the requirement. On Tuesday, the union continued to reject the requirement.
“DO NOT COMPLY at the District or Unit Level on going into the portal,” according to a statement on the Chicago police union’s website dated Oct. 19. “Make them give you a Direct Order to go down to 35th Street for a counseling session.”
The department is giving officers a chance to reconsider and report their status. If not, they are being placed on unpaid leave. As of Tuesday, 21 officers were in a no-pay status for not complying, Brown said.
Pushback in Los Angeles is spurring officials to consider delaying its mandate. The city council is slated to take up a 60-day extension to the deadline for city workers to be vaccinated, moving it to Dec. 18. That would include 10,000 police officers represented by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which has helped negotiate the terms of the grace period, according to the union’s spokesperson, Tom Saggau.
During the next two months, unvaccinated police officers will undergo twice-a-week testing “on their own time and their own dime” -- $260 deducted from their bi-weekly paychecks, said Saggau. Under the proposed rules, officers who remain unvaccinated on Dec. 19 -- and haven’t qualified for a medical or religious exemption -- will be served a notice of termination, he said. About 66% of LAPD’s 9,329 sworn, full-time personnel are vaccinated, according to the latest data from the department.
“We didn’t agree to the mandate, it was imposed on us and we’re not happy about it,” said Saggau. “But we are engaged, and trying to make things as reasonable as possible” for the police officers.
Ban on Mandates
Other big cities aren’t allowed to force the shots. Houston officials aren’t tracking vaccination rates among cops or firefighters in the fourth-largest U.S. city and can’t require the shots because of a prohibition on such mandates by local governments handed down by Governor Greg Abbott.
Unvaccinated city employees are required to submit negative test results twice monthly and those who don’t comply “may face corrective action up to and including termination or indefinite suspension,” Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office said in a statement last month. The testing requirement, which kicked in on Oct. 8, allows for medical and religious exemptions, and doesn’t apply to elected officials or appointees.
The city can’t enforce a vaccine mandate, said Ada Ortega, a spokesperson for the mayor. “But if they’re not vaccinated, they’ve got to show a negative test.”
In some parts of the country, vaccine requirements are going smoothly. Seattle police are complying, with 92% of the department vaccinated of Tuesday and 7% seeking exemptions, according to data provided by the mayor’s office. All but six employees submitted either vaccination records or requests for accommodation, and those six are going through the separation process, the department said.
In a statement Monday, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the local union, said that while city officials have said they are trying to accommodate officers with medical or religious exemptions “the SPOG believes this is untrue.” The mayor’s office said the city is continuing to work through the requests.
In Denver, where two sheriff’s deputies died of Covid-19, 96.7% of sheriff’s department employees and 98.8% of police department employees were vaccinated as of Oct. 8, according to data from the city and county. Under a city public health order, all city employees were required to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. Denver’s police union said its members “can be trusted with their personal decisions.” Seven Denver officers sued the city but a judge dismissed the suit, the Denver Post reported.
In San Francisco, the first major U.S. area to require vaccines for city workers, 96% of employees were inoculated as of Oct. 19. Among the holdouts are 93 members of the police department, 46 of whom are active-duty officers. That’s a marked shift from late September, when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that more than 350 of 2,800-plus SFPD workers hadn’t yet gotten their shots. Those who don’t comply will be suspended without pay on Nov. 1, and may be fired after a due process hearing, Mayor London Breed said Tuesday.
“I don’t want to lose a single City worker,” Breed tweeted. “But I won’t sacrifice the health and safety of our workforce and the public.”
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