An appeals court judge Tuesday granted an injunction blocking Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for workers from three municipal unions until the two sides hash out a solution at the bargaining table, state labor authorities decide the matter, or there is a court resolution to the case.
The decision from Justice Sabita Singh represented a blow to Wu’s vaccination mandate, a policy that has dominated her early tenure in City Hall’s fifth-floor corner office, and the latest turn in a COVID-19 fight that has pitted the city’s new and progressive mayor against a bloc of decidedly old-school Boston power: a trio of public safety unions.
Just weeks into her term, Wu announced in December that she was requiring the city’s 19,000-plus workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 to help curb the spread of the virus and protect the public. In her announcement, she said she wanted to do away with a weekly testing option in lieu of vaccines.
A Wu spokesman said Tuesday the mayoral administration is disappointed by the appeals court’s decision and is “reviewing it carefully.”
“To protect communities and workplaces against COVID-19, courts across the country have repeatedly recognized the rights of state and local governments to require public employees to be vaccinated,” said the spokesman. “More than 95 percent of the City’s workforce is vaccinated because of the policy we enacted. Our workers and residents who rely on city services deserve to be protected.”
The unions, meanwhile, have accused Wu of ignoring collective bargaining agreements that Acting Mayor Kim Janey reached with them last year. They say it is wrong for the mayor to make vaccination a condition of employment with the city.
Singh’s order applies to only the trio of unions that brought the litigation against the city — the Boston Firefighters Union Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society — and not to other municipal unions. Those three unions have an open case currently under consideration at the state’s Department of Labor Relations regarding the city’s vaccination mandate.
State labor authorities recently ruled in favor of Governor Charlie Baker, allowing him to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for state troopers without going to the bargaining table first, and to fire those who don’t comply. Baker’s vaccine mandate for state executive department employees does not allow testing instead of inoculation.
In her Tuesday order, Singh found that “the harm to the city and the public interest caused by the city’s inability to enforce the vaccine mandate policy as to the unions . . . is quite limited.”
While the city would be unable to require about 450 workers, which represent the remaining unvaccinated union members in the case, to show proof of vaccination, it would be able to require them to test regularly “to minimize the risk that employees infected with the virus would interact in the workplace and with the public.”
“Thus, the city retains the ability to effect public health measures to minimize the spread of the virus,” said Singh. In other words, the old vaccine-or-test agreement reached under Janey should remain in place for the trio of unions for the time being.
Tuesday’s ruling vacated a Superior Court decision from last month that denied the three unions’ request that the court block Wu’s tougher vaccine mandate. After the lower court ruling, the unions filed an appeal, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court effectively paused the vaccination mandate last month while it considered the appeal.
John Soares, president of Local 718, which represents Boston firefighters, said Tuesday’s ruling was “huge for us.”
“I’ve got guys and girls that have been on a roller coaster ride for the last seven months, trying to figure out am I fired, am I not,” said Soares, who said union officials will host a news conference on the matter at Dorchester’s Florian Hall Wednesday morning.
Leah Barrault, an attorney representing Local 718, said that while the union is pleased with Tuesday’s ruling, it was disappointing that “we had to go to these lengths to have a conversation about a topic that should’ve been bargained in the first place.” Barrault has said the disagreement was not centered on vaccinations.
“It’s been about labor and about collective bargaining and an agreement in place that we put together in good faith and it was disregarded,” she said.
The Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, meanwhile, in a statement said Singh’s decision “is an important victory for the rights of unions to have a voice in their workplace, even in administrations that claim to be progressive and guided by science.“
“The decision by Justice Singh demonstrates that when one puts away the far fetched rhetoric and the social media soundbites, the law and the facts are on our side,” said the union.
Wu’s vaccination mandate has received vocal pushback from opponents, with demonstrators protesting outside her Roslindale home and at her public events in recent weeks. Public health experts widely agree that vaccination against COVID-19 is more effective at curbing the disease’s spread than testing alone, which provides onlya snapshot in time of whether an individual is infected.
Earlier this month, Wu and the Boston Teachers Union 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. The Boston School Committee was slated to vote on that deal Tuesday night but postponed its decision after the injunction earlier in the day.
The teachers union last week 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.
Emma Platoff of Globe staff contributed to this report.