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Newton’s COVID-19 pandemic stipend for city employees leaves some groups out

Newton City Hall.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A city of Newton program that awards stipends as high as $1,500 to municipal workers for their commitment to the city during the darkest days of the pandemic does not include school employees or the union representing rank-and-file police officers, according to the city.

The stipends, announced by Mayor Ruthanne Fuller last month and funded by $1 million in federal pandemic relief money, were part of a series of agreements with most of the city’s municipal labor unions to comply with its COVID-19 vaccination policy.

That policy requires city-side workers to be vaccinated, or receive an exemption from the city for religious or medical reasons. Unvaccinated city workers must wear masks on duty, and submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

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The stipends would be available to any eligible employee who complies with the policy.

“I am grateful to all of our union leadership who spent many hours and days talking about this important workplace safety initiative,” Fuller said in the statement. “It was important to me as Mayor to include our unions in conversations about the impact of this policy.”

Ninety-five percent of the city’s 884 municipal employees — including police — are expected to be vaccinated, Fuller said. The remainder will have an exemption under the policy.

Fuller said the city reached agreements on the vaccination policy with the unions representing hundreds of city workers, including firefighters, nurses, City Hall workers, and Police Department superior officers, whose members will be eligible for the stipends.

But the stipends won’t be issued to members of the Newton Police Association, according to Fuller, after it “chose not to” join the other unions in reaching a similar agreement with the city.

The stipend program also does not include the Newton Public Schools, where the workforce was required to comply with the schools’ vaccination policy by Oct. 15. Under that policy, employees had to be vaccinated, or be granted medical exemptions or an exemption for a sincerely held religious belief, according to the school department.

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In a statement to the Globe Wednesday night, Fuller said that she had allocated $3 million from the city’s share of federal relief funds to the school department in order to provide stipends to those workers as well, “and/or to support other educational purposes.”

She said she let the schools’ leadership know about the money before she announced the stipends for city-side employees.

“Since the pandemic began in early 2020, the teachers, aides, custodians, administrators and staff that together help to educate and support our young people at Newton Public Schools have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to public service, public health and public education,” Fuller said of school workers.

The city set a Jan. 14 deadline for municipal unions to agree to the vaccination policy, Fuller said.

The stipends were included in the agreements with the city unions in recognition of employees’ “commitment to public service and public health,” according to Fuller.

“I wish I could extend this stipend to all permanent city employees. However, the collective bargaining laws do not allow the City to do so for the members of the one union which did not enter into an agreement with the City,” Fuller said, referring to the Newton Police Association.

Officer John Panica, president of the police association, said the union sent Fuller an e-mail regarding its concerns about her statement announcing the stipends. He said the union’s membership has complied with the city’s COVID-19 policy. The police union represents about 104 members, according to the city.

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“It has never been about the stipend. The stipend was brought up by the city during the bargaining process for the [memorandum of agreement on the vaccine policy],” Panica said in a brief statement to the Globe. “We are looking for protection regarding the health and safety of our members.”

Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said he is asking Fuller and other school leaders to extend the stipends to his members.

The teachers’ union represents about 2,000 educators and other school staff, and Zilles said its leadership had advocated for a vaccine mandate.

“We believed it was the right thing to do to protect our members, our students, and the Newton community,” he said of calling for a mandate. “We took a leadership role in promoting a vaccine mandate for Newton employees.”

Fuller serves on the nine-member School Committee as mayor. The city, in a statement to the Globe, said a decision on offering similar stipends to school workers will be decided by the School Committee and its collective bargaining team.

Tamika Olszewski, the School Committee’s chairwoman, said in an e-mail that the committee is reviewing stipends for school workers.

“The School Committee is working to assess the impact of allocating similar stipends to our employees, understanding that our district is facing a challenging deficit projection over next year’s budget. The difficult question before the Committee is the extent to which we can either reconcile this deficit, grant the stipends to our workers, or otherwise be able to meet both objectives,” Olszewski said.

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Zilles said the union’s members should be recognized for working through the pandemic.

“They have been there for their students throughout this long and seemingly never-ending crisis. That is what they should be rewarded for,” Zilles said.

Among Newton Public School employees, nearly all of the department’s 2,531 workers complied with the vaccine mandate, according to Julie McDonough, a department spokeswoman. Sixteen workers left their jobs due to the policy.

Of the school employees who complied with the vaccination policy, 11 were granted exemptions, McDonough said.

The city reported that of its 881 permanent employees, about 800 municipal workers are vaccinated for COVID-19, while about 40 more are either in the process of being vaccinated or have a pending exemption request. Roughly 50 workers have received an exemption from the vaccination requirement.

Newton municipal workers who are not vaccinated must wear masks while on the job, and undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, according to the policy.

According to the city, two city employees were separated from their employment because they did not comply with the vaccine requirement. Four others chose to resign or retire due to the policy, the city reported.

The agreements with the unions would generally award an eligible employee a $1,500 stipend if they began working for the city before June 15, 2021, the city said. Eligible workers who started after that date would receive $250 or $500. Stipend amounts are pro-rated for part-time workers, the city said in a statement.

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John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.