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Teachers union, City Hall agree to softened version of COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston Teachers Union have agreed on a softened version of the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the union’s 8,403 members, allowing educators to be tested for COVID regularly in lieu of vaccination during periods of lower virus transmission, even as public safety unions continue to tangle with City Hall over the requirement.

The announcement represents progress for Wu in an ongoing and increasingly acrimonious labor dispute that has come to define her first few months in office. But it also marks a significant, if metrics-driven, retreat from her original vaccine mandate, which lacked a testing opt-out, a tight restriction she said in December was essential for public health.

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The teachers union on Wednesday ratified an agreement to allow unvaccinated members to continue working during periods of low virus transmission, provided they submit to COVID-19 testing twice a week. During periods of higher virus transmission — deemed the “red zone” in the agreement — unvaccinated union members would not be allowed in school buildings, and could use accrued paid time off. Otherwise, unvaccinated teachers would need to take unpaid leave during high-transmission periods.

Under the agreement, all new hires would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Eighty-four percent of the teachers union voted in favor of the agreement, which is subject to the approval of the Boston School Committee.

In practice, the agreement affects very few union members: Just 367 BTU educators remain unvaccinated, according to the union. The vast majority of the city’s roughly 19,000 workers have been inoculated, a number that has grown since Wu announced the stricter mandate in December.

Under the agreement negotiated by the teachers union, no educator can be fired for choosing not to get the vaccine. But other unvaccinated city workers could risk termination if their unions do not come to similar understandings. Wu said in December that the vaccine requirement would be a condition of employment for city workers, meaning they could be fired if they did not comply.

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Currently, the city is barred from enforcing the mandate amid a legal challenge from several first responder unions. But the city intends to enforce the mandate if and when the stay is lifted, a process that would begin with placing unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave. Municipal workers can also apply for religious or medical exemptions, though less than half of those processed had been approved, WBUR first reported this week.

The agreement with the teachers union comes as the city and public safety unions continue to battle over the same issue.

First responders have also been offered a testing opt-out option during times of lower transmission, but the unions have not yet reached an agreement with the city. John Soares, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, said the sticking point was over which COVID-19 metrics would be used to define the “yellow zone” when testing would be allowed in lieu of vaccination.

Under the public health benchmarks in the teachers union agreement, the city remains in the “red zone,” though the metrics continue to trend downward. The crucial metrics are ICU occupancy, hospitalizations per day, and community positivity rate.

Union battles over the vaccine mandate have become the dominant political dispute of Wu’s early tenure, a first brawl in a power struggle that shows no signs of receding. Protesters dog her at events across the city and, for the past month, have been showing up most mornings outside her Roslindale home to bang drums and shout their opposition.

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Wu said at a news conference Thursday morning she was “very grateful” that the teachers union had ratified the agreement, which she said would ensure “that we are still keeping our classrooms fully safe.”

“This is the shape of the deal that was also proposed to our public safety unions as well,” she added. “We did not reach an agreement with them.”

Previously, all city workers could opt to be tested regularly instead of being vaccinated. Some unions argue that Wu’s tightened mandate violates existing labor agreements.

Wu said earlier on Thursday it is “deeply disappointing” that public safety unions are still fighting her mandate.

“What we see here is a small group of unions deferring to, enabling, and empowering a fringe group that is seeking to have an absolute right to remain unvaccinated in the middle of the pandemic,” Wu said in a brief interview outside her home. “I continue to be surprised and disappointed that so many of our public safety partners continue to refuse responsibility for vaccination.”

Even if Wu wins the court fight, her chilly relationship with the public safety unions seems unlikely to warm anytime soon. Contracts for the public safety unions are due to be renegotiated, and Wu has pledged to use the bargaining process as a way to reform the police department, an effort that is sure to meet with resistance. Campaign contributions show that city firefighters and police overwhelmingly preferred Wu’s opponent in last year’s mayoral election.

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Leaders of four public safety unions — Boston Firefighters Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, and the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association — wrote in a public letter to Wu Wednesday evening that they were “extremely disappointed” with how the administration had handled the negotiations, citing delays and cancellations. They said Wu’s team has failed to respond to several union proposals — and that silence was all the more frustrating when the public safety unions learned that the administration had inked a deal with the teachers at the same time, Soares said.

Wu’s team spent hours last week negotiating with the teachers union and the public safety unions alike. The mayor herself was present for some talks on Thursday, and a marathon session on Friday ran nine hours. But they did not reach an agreement.

Negotiations continued this week, and the administration has “presented many examples of compromise,” Wu said.

In December, when she announced the stricter vaccine mandate amid boisterous protests, Wu addressed why she was pushing for a vaccine mandate without a testing option.

“We know that as cases go up, it is necessary to protect everyone who interacts with city government, to have full vaccination among the workforce, to avoid any more outbreaks in our schools that could happen from unvaccinated teachers or staff. . . . to avoid any unnecessary transmission from city services,” Wu said.

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The City Council is set to hold a hearing Friday on the vaccine mandate and agreements between the city and unions. Officials from the mayor’s office, the executive director of the of the public health commission, and representatives from the various municipal bargaining units are invited to testify.

Before the administration reached its agreement with educators, the teachers union had warned that the mandate could pull dozens of educators of color from the Boston Public Schools, a system already struggling to build a workforce that reflects the diversity of its students. Educators of color were overrepresented among those who faced termination for being unvaccinated, with Black and Latino educators making up the majority, the Boston Teachers Union has previously said. The union argued their departures could relationships between educators and students, three-quarters of whom are Black or Latino.

Danny McDonald and Naomi Martin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff.