Mayor Michelle Wu announced a one-week-long postponement to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate until Jan. 30 for city employees to comply without being disciplined or placed on unpaid leave.
With 1,600 additional submissions of proof of vaccination since the policy was announced on Dec. 20, 2021, more than 94% — in total 18, 270 — of the city workforce is already vaccinated, Wu said at a press conference Monday.
“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. “We are giving this one more week to make sure that we realize that progress.”
Wu announced in December that all city employees are required to receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination by Jan. 15. The original deadline was extended to Jan. 24.
Three unions — Boston Firefighters Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation and Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society — announced Dec. 30 they filed a temporary restraining order to stop the implementation of the vaccine requirement.
A Suffolk Superior Court judge rejected the request Jan. 12, meaning workers must comply with the vaccination mandate by Sunday.
“We’re asking Mayor Wu to lead us to a solution that doesn’t end with hard-working city employees being terminated,” Edward Kelly, general president of the International Association of Firefighters, said. “We’ve served this far into the pandemic. We have to be able to find a solution that doesn’t end with families losing their balance.”
John Soares, the president of Boston Firefighters Union Local 718, said the union worked out a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) in August 2021 with acting Mayor Kim Janey allowing unvaccinated firefighters who are uncomfortable receiving a vaccine to take a weekly test.
“We just want to go back to the testing aspect of it,” Soares said. “We have a small group that we could have taken care of, but we can’t seem to work that out with the city.”
Boston Police Superior Officers Federation (BPSOF) said Wu’s action shows “a contempt for collective bargaining” in a press release Monday.
“While the MOA states that the Union ‘fully reserves its right to bargain over any mandate’ to get boosted, what has the Mayor done thus far to suggest that she will honor this new MOA and any demand to bargain about boosters prior to implementation?” BPSOF said in a statement.
Boston Police is at 95% vaccination rate while Boston Fire has reached 91%, Wu said at the press conference.
Soares said the number of active firefighters groups — including deputy chiefs, captains, district chiefs and lieutenants — is dropping.
According to Soares, the fire department consists of 1,525 firefighters, and more than 800 of them have less than 10 years of experience on the job.
“The group that could be here is a group that has some seniority,” Soares said. “That’s one of the things that worries me, we’ll lose some senior people.”
Any policy related to vaccination as a condition of employment must be negotiated with the union, the firefighter union stated in a Dec. 30 press release.
“We’re just asking if we could just sit at the table and have a conversation about the basics of this, which is collective bargaining, by the arbitration,” Soares said. “The city’s built on labor, we just want that opportunity to work off of that contract.”
According to the COVID-19 vaccination weekly report by the Boston Health Commission, vaccination rates increased by 36% from the first to the second week in January and 17% from the second to the third. Overall, a little more than 70% of residents are fully vaccinated and more than 82% have received at least one dose of vaccine.
Paul Beninger, associate professor of Community Medicine and Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine, said the battle of the vaccine mandate can be traced back to 1901 when the Supreme Court ruled states can enforce vaccine mandates.
“It’s really a balance between sort of individual rights and communal interests,” Beninger said.
While firefighters have a right to protest, Beninger said he thought they were frontline workers who should not be putting anyone at risk.
Wu said 609 exemption requests — both medical and religious exemptions — have been submitted and they are granted on a case-by-case basis.
“This policy does represent an important step in our pandemic and in this moment of emergency,” Wu said. “So we will continue to work with everyone over this week and this policy will be going into effect shortly.”