Boston public safety workers are amplifying their opposition to Mayor Michelle Wu’s planned vaccination mandate for city employees, with unions trying to block the policy in Superior Court. At the same time, a workers’ rights group is advocating for its members to overwhelm the city with last-minute exemption requests.
Boston Firefighters Local 718, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society filed a petition Thursday for a temporary restraining order to halt the policy’s implementation, arguing the requirement would violate existing labor agreements and “overburden exhausted work forces,” according to a statement from the firefighters union.
One day earlier, Boston First Responders United, a group with more than 250 members from Boston police, fire, and EMS, sent out an e-mail explaining how to submit requests for religious exemptions and instructing members to all file their paperwork at the same time on the morning before the vaccination deadline.
“Document dump means everyone submits their religious exemption at the same time on the same day,” the group wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by the Globe. “This is at the advice of our Attorney. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.”
The city mandate would require all workers to have their first vaccine dose by Jan. 15 and their second dose by Feb. 15, unless they receive a medical or religious exemption. It does away with the option to instead be tested for COVID-19 weekly, which firefighters had requested during negotiations and want to see returned, according to the firefighters union.
Requiring vaccinations “not only violates Memoranda of Agreements executed by current and former administrations but will, if it is not enjoined, significantly reduce understaffed public safety agencies that are necessary to address public health response to the ongoing pandemic, will overburden exhausted work forces, and will significantly reduce the testing of employees at a time when testing should be increased if not maintained,” the union argued.
Asked about the guidance from Boston First Responders United, a city spokesperson said the Wu administration has acted properly in imposing the mandate. The spokesperson did not specifically respond to a question about the unions’ request to block the policy.
“As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the City has acted within its authority, and with the advice of public health officials, to require vaccination for all city workers, aligning our policy with that of the state and with public-serving employers across the country,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “This plan builds in appropriate time for compliance, and our expectation is that all of our city’s workforce will join us in protecting our communities by taking every action possible to end this pandemic.”
The unions stressed that their attempt to block the policy “is not an action that questions the existence or severity of the ongoing pandemic or the validity or science of legally approved vaccines. This is also not an action challenging the revised policy under state or federal civil rights laws or Constitutions.”
An attorney for the unions did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday night.
Boston First Responders United is only trying to provide information for police officers, firefighters, and EMS workers who have deeply felt religious beliefs or medical reasons for not getting vaccinated, according to Boston police Officer Shana Cottone, a leader in the group.
City workers came to the group for guidance on how to file for an exemption because they were requesting the information from their human resources officers and getting no response, Cottone said.
“Members did reach out [to HR]; I reached out too, myself. And I got no guidance whatsoever,” Cottone said in a phone interview. “So we put together a resource package for people to go through. ... We’re just trying to give people this information. Knowledge is power, and people deserve access to that.”
The organization’s message Wednesday urged its members to stand up for their freedom, asking, “If the government can make you inject something you don’t want into your veins — or they take everything away from you (job, house, car, future prospects) — is that freedom? Is that choice? Or is that a modern day form of enslavement?”
“None of us envisioned being in this position,” the group wrote. “This is the stuff we watch on a Netflix series, it’s a bad movie, but we are the good guys. And we are going to win.”
Cottone, a 14-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, said she’s worried that the city will fire valued officers, at a time when the city is dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the department is already tightly staffed.
“This all comes down to choice. … We want to have a choice whether we take this experimental vaccine or not,” she said. “For us this is not political. This is about ensuring that we keep our jobs so we can support our families.”