Days before Boston authorities are set to start disciplining unvaccinated municipal workers, opposition to Mayor Michelle Wu’s strengthened COVID-19 vaccination mandate continued to boil, with scores of first responders protesting the policy at Dorchester’s Florian Hall and one union official vowing they would continue a legal fight against the rule.
Friday’s protest marked the most recent demonstration in an increasing pitched clash between Mayor Michelle Wu and municipal unions and workers, following recent vocal protests of Wu at official events and outside her Roslindale home.
At Friday’s news conference inside the hall, Edward Kelly, a Boston firefighter and general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, called Wu’s move to institute a vaccination mandate for the city’s 18,000-strong workforce “flat-out wrong.” He added that union authorities would appeal a Suffolk Superior Court ruling earlier this month rejecting a request from three public safety unions to block enforcement of Wu’s COVID vaccine mandate. Separately, union officials have filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city over the matter.
“We intend to be loud,” said Kelly, flanked by union officials from Boston police and fire departments. “We want to be heard by the citizens of Boston that we put our lives on the line for every single day that we’re not being treated fairly, that our rights are being trampled on by this administration, and we’re not going to stand for it.”
More than 100 first responders showed up to the news conference to signal their opposition to the mandate. Some held signs reading “Mayor Wu Anti-Labor” and “Mayor Wu Burns Firefighters.”
“Her blatant disregard for the collective bargaining process by unilaterally revising a memorandum of agreement with an effective testing option cannot go unchecked,” the union declared in a message to its members.
“More importantly, we must stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who feel uncomfortable taking the COVID vaccine.”
The news conference came days before a key deadline for the city’s workforce of over 18,000. Starting on Monday, city workers who still have not provided proof of vaccination will be placed on unpaid administrative leave, pending further action.
Kelly suggested that such a move could affect hundreds of police officers and firefighters in the city. He warned, even, that both departments could struggle to reach minimum staffing levels on Monday.
“That potential exists,” he said, adding that such vacancies would strain the system and could affect response times to 911 calls.
Boston Fire Commissioner John Dempsey disputed that suggestion. “The Boston Fire Department has the staffing and resources to keep Boston residents safe. I am confident that there will be no interruption of service due to the vaccine requirement,” he said in a statement.
Wu’s office said as of Friday afternoon, 90 percent of the city’s firefighters were in compliance with the vaccination mandate. Overall, 18,123 city employees were in compliance with the mandate as of Friday afternoon, the administration said. Of that number, 17,350 had received at least two vaccination shots, while 773 were partially vaccinated. City officials said they will share information on how many employees are placed on unpaid leave once those letters are sent.
“The vast majority of city workers are vaccinated, and I’m grateful to the hundreds of public employees who have gotten vaccinated in recent days and weeks” Wu said in a statement Friday. “During this pandemic, we all have an obligation to keep Boston safe through prioritizing the health of our communities at large.”
John Soares, the union’s president, said Friday morning before the news conference that the city’s approach to the vaccination mandate is going to cause “irreparable harm, irreparable harm to the union, irreparable harm to the city.”
“We’re getting no help from the city,” said Soares during a brief phone interview. “We want the people to know where we stand.”
Soares said as many as 175 firefighters could be placed on leave because of the mandate. The city has more than 1,500 firefighters total, he said.
Wu announced the mandate last month in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. In doing so, she eliminated a previous option for city workers to be regularly tested instead of being vaccinated. Union officials want the the testing option to remain. “We came to an agreement with the city of Boston that we could test our members who had strongly held beliefs against being vaccinated and that would protect the citizens of Boston. And in fact it did,” Kelly said.
Wu’s vaccination mandate immediately sparked fierce resistance from a small, but vocal minority of city workers. Demonstrators have showed up outside the mayor’s 2-family home she shares with her husband, two children, and mother, blaring music and demonstrating with bullhorns shortly after 7 a.m.
Some of the pushback to the vaccine mandate has been racist and misogynistic in nature. (Wu is the first person of color and first woman to be elected Boston mayor. She was sworn-in in November.)
However, the vast majority of city workers are complying with the mandate. As of last week, more than 16,800 workers verified they were fully vaccinated, meaning they have received at least two shots, while more than 560 confirmed that they are partially vaccinated, according to the mayor’s office. How many were in compliance as of Friday morning was not immediately clear.
Earlier this week, Wu’s administration estimated the city is processing about 600 exemption requests to the new mandate. A Wu spokeswoman said the city does not yet have the number of exemptions that were granted or denied.
As of Thursday, Boston Public Schools had received 322 requests from staff for exemptions from the vaccine mandate — out of the district’s total 10,000 employees — though more could be pending. The district said it did not yet know how many unvaccinated employees were approved or rejected in their requests for exemptions.
Teachers out of compliance with the mandate should have received notice Wednesday, the Boston Teachers Union told its members in an email. The union advised those members to keep working until being told not to; the earliest they would be placed on unpaid leave is Jan. 24.
The teachers union told members Wednesday it is still in negotiations with the district, but “at this point, we strongly encourage anyone who wants to continue to be employed by BPS for the foreseeable future to get vaccinated, especially if you have not received an approved exemption or accommodation.”
”We understand that this is an extremely stressful and difficult situation for many members and that there are strong feelings on all sides of the issue,” the union told members.
In a statement to the Globe, union president Jessica Tang said the union has always encouraged members to get vaccinated and boosted, and in its current negotiations is seeking to incentivize vaccinations “while avoiding further compounding of current staffing shortages.” She said the union has proposed that educators out of compliance with the vaccine mandate be allowed to stay in their jobs until the end of the school year if they submit to mandatory testing twice per week.
“We believe that the policy must be implemented in a fair and equitable manner, and that includes considering how the policy will impact student relationships, staffing shortages and the diversity of our educators,” Tang said.