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NYC union leaders say mayor’s COVID-19 mandate took them by surprise

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio.
New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio.GABRIELA BHASKAR/NYT

NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio’s declaration Monday that more than 300,000 municipal workers in New York City must get vaccinated against the coronavirus or agree to weekly testing was an unwelcome surprise to many of the city’s municipal unions.

Unions representing a diverse city workforce of firefighters and paramedics have come out against the mayor’s mandate.

Some unions have made demands: Exemptions for workers who have antibodies after recovering from COVID-19; workplace testing paid for by the city; overtime for workers who get tested outside work.

And just about every major union has argued that the mayor cannot unilaterally impose the mandate without first negotiating with labor leaders.

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“The unions are really, really aggravated that the mayor sprung this on everybody,” said Harry Nespoli, the president of the sanitation workers’ union.

But de Blasio, a Democrat in his final year in office, expressed confidence Tuesday that the city could legally require vaccination or testing for its workers, and that his administration would sort out how to implement the mandate with union leadership.

“We’re quite clear that we’re procedurally in a strong place,” de Blasio said. “We have the right as an employer to guarantee the health and safety of our employees and everyone they serve.”

De Blasio said the mandate for city workers — starting Sept. 13, when schools reopen — was necessary to combat a troubling rise of cases as the contagious delta variant spreads in the city. Officials in California and at the Department of Veterans Affairs also moved to vaccinate government workers.

The opposition from unions — based in part in a general reluctance to force members, many of whom are Black and Latino, to get the vaccine — is more rooted in the logistics of offering vaccines or weekly tests, and the discipline for those who do not comply. For now, it seems unlikely that it could lead to lawsuits or strikes.

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The threat to public workers who are not vaccinated was reinforced Tuesday when the city’s police commissioner, Dermot Shea, said that five unvaccinated employees of the Police Department were in the hospital with the virus.

“When you look at who is getting sick right now, every story I hear anecdotally, it’s somebody that is not vaccinated,” Shea said in a television interview on NY1. “God forbid, you put yourself or your loved ones or anyone else at risk. It’s the right thing to do.”

The Police Department appears to have one of the lowest vaccination rates among city agencies. The department has administered the vaccine to 43% of workers, though other officers have likely received the vaccine on their own.

The city’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, has so far declined to comment on the new mandate. Other unions have made their opposition clear: The firefighters’ union said the city should allow members who test positive for antibodies to receive exemptions from the mandate. The paramedics’ union said the city was disregarding its members’ civil liberties, and asked for overtime if workers must get tested outside of work hours.

“You’re going to have people that are going to resent it,” Nespoli said, adding that his sanitation workers — many of whom got sick as they kept working during the pandemic — took specific umbrage at the mayor’s threat that those who did not comply would be put on leave without pay.

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“I was out in one of my garages yesterday and they’re saying, ‘What’s going on with this — if you don’t get the shot, they’re going to send you home?’” Nespoli said.

Oren Barzilay, the president of a union of emergency medical workers that opposes the mandate, said that some of his 4,300 members have expressed concerns about side effects or complications from the vaccine and about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration not yet giving full approval to any coronavirus vaccine.

“There’s so many questions unanswered,” he said. “How’s it going to be implemented? How are we going to get them tested? What happens to us if we have a side effect? It was just a blanket statement without any action plan.”

City workers had mixed reactions. Carlotta Pope, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, is not yet vaccinated and is waiting until she can accompany her mother, who remains skeptical of the vaccine. Pope said she found the mayor’s announcement “bully-ish,” but she has no problem being tested weekly and thinks all employees should be subject to frequent testing.

“That may seem tedious,” she said, “but it still gives people a partial choice, to not back people into a corner” on vaccines.

“I’m happy to go back into the building regardless,” she added.

Stiven Taveras, 32, a New York City Housing Authority employee, said he had not heard about the city’s new rules as he collected garbage in Upper Manhattan on Tuesday. Though he wants to get vaccinated, he has not done it yet because he’s “too lazy,” especially after working 10-hour days.

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Now, he thinks he and other workers will get vaccinated by September to avoid weekly tests.

“If you show both options, people are going to choose the easy one,” he said.

Timmy, a municipal worker who declined to give his last name, said he has been “wary” about getting the vaccine and worried about complications from the shot.

“I didn’t take it and I’m not going to take it,” he said, adding that city workers should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to get vaccinated, and the prospect of weekly testing would not change his mind.

“I’ll take a test every day if I have to,” he said.

Leaders of the city’s largest municipal union, District Council 37, had insisted Monday that the new rules had to be part of collective bargaining negotiations, emphasizing that New York was still a “union town.”

But after District Council 37’s executive director, Henry Garrido, met with Dean Fuleihan, de Blasio’s deputy mayor, Monday, the union leader said he believed they could figure out the details.

“We’re in support of vaccines — we’re in support of testing,” Garrido said Tuesday. “We simply feel that we need to negotiate the impact.”

Officials still need to sort out details like how to handle scheduling for people who work in the field and need to get tested or who work alone and cannot leave their post unattended, and how to accommodate workers who are allergic to vaccines, Garrido said.

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Gregory Floyd, the president of a major union that represents public housing workers, said he supports a vaccine requirement for city workers, but he was frustrated by de Blasio’s hasty announcement, and his members had concerns about the details.

“The mayor is doing a responsible thing by telling us all we have to get vaccinated or get tested every week, but he can’t do a responsible thing in a rational or reasonable way,” Floyd said. “He could have had meetings with all of the unions, set the policy, set the tone, answered questions and rolled this out in a cohesive way.”

John Samuelsen, the president of the transit workers’ union, said that his members have “diverse ideas about whether or not to get the vaccine.” He has heard from workers who already had COVID-19 and do not believe they need to get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people should get vaccinated even if they already had COVID-19 because experts do not know how long protection lasts after someone recovers.

“There are transit workers that have religious reasons, health reasons — it comes from several different angles,” Samuelsen said.

The unions representing teachers and principals, who have sharply criticized de Blasio in the past, appeared to be cooperative. Mark Cannizzaro, president of the principals’ union, said that the changes would be “minor” for his members and that one positive development is that vaccinated principals would no longer have to submit to weekly testing.

Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for ​the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents New York City’s jail officers, said that ​any required testing should be paid for ​by the city. His members also appear to have one of the lowest vaccination rates — the city said that only 33% of correction employees had been vaccinated at sites in the city as of last week.

Skelly said that many of the union’s members live outside the city and were more likely to have been vaccinated at sites there. He said that members were reluctant to comment on the city’s decision or their own vaccination statuses.

“People have a variety of experiences with this, and it’s very personal for them,” he said.

Dee Torres, 60, a clerical associate for the city, said she had gotten vaccinated and wanted all municipal employees to do the same. But she did not believe that weekly testing would pressure her unvaccinated colleagues to change their minds.

“People are still stuck,” she said. “I have co-workers who say they don’t need the vaccine.”