The city of Boston will give its workforce one more week to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before employees are placed on unpaid leave, a temporary but noticeable concession in what has become an acrimonious dispute between Mayor Michelle Wu and several first responders unions.
More than 94 percent of municipal employees are already complying with the mandate, Wu said Monday.
It’s the second time the new mayor has postponed enforcement of the mandate amid a fight that has already drawn an unfair labor practice complaint against the city and a lawsuit. Since Wu announced in December that Boston workers would have to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment, a vocal minority of city workers have opposed the mandate in court and through bullhorns, with some going so far as to protest outside city events and even at Wu’s Roslindale home.
Implementing the vaccine mandate has been an early political — and legal — test for Wu’s young administration, which is confronting the considerable power of the city’s union workforce just as it gets off the ground. But Wu said repeatedly she remains committed to the requirement despite the opposition. The delays, she said, are an effort to get more city workers inoculated, not an indication that she is wavering in her commitment to the mandate.
“The goal of this was not to punish anyone for how they might feel about vaccination but to ensure that our city workers are safe and that any resident interacting with our city workforce is safe,” Wu said Monday afternoon during an appearance on WBUR’s “Radio Boston.” “We’re taking every possible step.”
“I don’t take this lightly,” she added of the mandate.
At a City Hall news conference on Monday, Wu celebrated the high proportion of municipal employees who are already vaccinated, ticking off high vaccination rates for a number of city departments, including 91 percent among firefighters and over 95 percent for Boston police. She said she is giving workers another week to comply in the hope that more will choose to get the shot. Wu said Monday that there were long and “productive” discussions with municipal unions over the weekend, which are continuing, and she hopes for more movement in the coming days.
“I’m incredibly encouraged by this progress, and we continue to have very productive conversations with our union partners about the collective bargaining impacts,” Wu said at the news conference. “We are giving this one more week to make sure that we realize that progress.”
The city has already seen early successes: Wu said more than 1,600 city workers have reported their vaccination status since the policy was announced last month. And a Suffolk Superior Court earlier this month rejected a request from three public safety unions to block enforcement of Wu’s COVID vaccine mandate.
Starting Jan. 31, workers who chose not to be vaccinated and have not received exemptions will be placed on unpaid leave, pending further action.
Wu’s latest deadline extension has hardly quieted opposition. Dozens of firefighters gathered in the cold outside Wu’s City Hall event Monday morning to protest the mandate, many of them wielding red signs proclaiming that Wu “burns firefighters” or is “anti-labor.” Just before Wu began speaking, and again just after the news conference ended, the protesters outside City Hall chanted: “Let us work! Let us work!”
A total of 18,270 city employees have already been vaccinated, Wu said.
The city has also received more than 600 requests for religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate. Wu said those requests are being considered on a case-by-case basis and that some have already been granted while others are still being processed.
Asked whether the city might postpone its enforcement a third time, Wu seemed not to rule it out.
“The deadline right now is Jan. 30, and I expect that all of our city workers who choose to get vaccinated will do so before this time,” she said. “We will not wait until every single city worker is there before implementing this.”
And she reiterated: “This policy will be implemented and we’re getting there. We’re basically there.”
Meanwhile, outside City Hall, demonstrators spoke out against the mandate, describing the postponement of consequences as good news but not enough.
“There are viable, common-sense solutions to this issue that don’t involve placing Boston firefighters on the unemployment line,” said Sam Dillon, a Boston firefighter and board member of Local 718, referring to the looming consequences for workers who choose not to be vaccinated. Wu “is not negotiating in good faith,” he added.
Shana Cottone, a police sergeant who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the mandate and leads the group Boston First Responders United, said the latest enforcement delay merely “underscores the problems” with Wu’s methods.
“If this was a true health emergency there wouldn’t be successive delays in implementing the policy,” she added. Cottone was placed on administrative leave earlier this month as part of an internal affairs investigation, the city said.
Wu said the city’s office of labor relations is having productive conversations with many labor unions.
One draft agreement being discussed with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, first reported by Politico, would give officers who comply with the mandate additional mental health and wellness days, as well as allow for officers who resign over the mandate but then get vaccinated within a particular time period to be rehired.
Asked about that proposal on Monday, Wu confirmed “that is what’s on the table right now with the BPPA and we continue to have conversations with other unions, as well.”
The BPPA did not return a request for comment, but another police union, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, said Monday it is rejecting the arrangement reportedly offered the BPPA.
In a statement, that union said, “The mayor’s actions display a contempt for collective bargaining.” The labor group asserted that Wu ignored a memorandum of agreement, failed to give the union notice, and opportunity to bargain before implementing “a radical change.”
The federation represents more than 260 Boston police, including 23 captains, 56 lieutenants, and 189 sergeants, according to the union’s website. Attempts to reach the union were not successful Monday evening.
Unlike the BPPA, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation was one of the three public safety unions to recently ask a Suffolk Superior Court judge to block enforcement of the city’s COVID mandate. The trio of unions had argued that the policy couldn’t be enforced until Wu’s team bargained with them, but the judge rejected their request, siding with the city.
For its part, the Boston Public Schools workforce is 94 percent vaccinated, Wu said.
As of Thursday, Boston Public Schools, which employs 10,000 staffers, had received 322 requests from employees for exemptions from the vaccine mandate. The district has not shared how many requests were rejected or approved.
To avoid compounding schools’ staffing shortages and to preserve teacher diversity and students’ relationships with teachers, the union has proposed that unvaccinated educators be allowed to keep working until the end of the year while submitting to mandatory testing twice a week, union president Jessica Tang told the Globe last week.
But Wu indicated Monday that the city would not allow teachers to opt out of vaccination by undergoing regular testing.
“We’re still in conversation with the Boston Teachers Union, but . . . that is not where we are,” she said.
Danny McDonald and Naomi Martin of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.