Boston vaccine mandate fight continues despite COVID testing proposal

COVID

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and three Boston first-responder unions still have not come to a resolution.

Protesters demonstrate against Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s vaccine mandate for city workers outside of the Daily Table where Wu was scheduled to appear on Tuesday. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It seems that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and local police and fire unions are no closer to reaching a resolution on the issue of the Boston employee vaccine mandate despite Wu reportedly making a significant concession this weekend.

On Friday, the city, the labor unions, and other stakeholders met at the Parkman House for nine hours, Mayor Wu said in a statement Sunday, but no progress was made in resolving the conflict.

During the meeting, Wu said, the City of Boston proposed adding a COVID-19 testing option for employees that would prevent them from being fired for not getting vaccinated once the mandate is in place.

Wu said the point of the proposal was to grandfather in the few unvaccinated holdouts while maintaining the mandate for new hires, thus preventing further conflict over this issue in the future.

While some of the labor unions have asked Wu to keep the testing option that is currently available to city employees, Wu’s proposal was significantly different.

The proposed testing option would have employees provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test twice a week, instead of once a week as the policy currently stands.

But perhaps more importantly, it would force employees to go on unpaid administrative leave if the pandemic reached certain surge levels in the city.

If Boston had a community COVID-19 positivity rate of greater than 5%, an intensive care unit occupancy rate greater than 95%, or a rate of more than 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day, the administrative leave protocol would kick in.

City employees would be allowed to use accrued vacation, compensatory or personal time to avoid being placed on leave, but not accrued sick time. It also said the proposed unpaid administrative leave would not be disciplinary or subject to any contractual grievance or arbitration processes.

“Our administration has invested significant time and resources in good faith bargaining to address unions’ concerns about the impacts of a vaccination requirement policy,” she said. “…It’s unfortunate that partners and leaders I respect continue to refuse responsibility for members to get vaccinated during this pandemic.”

This development comes in the wake of Boston Firefighters Local 718 accusing Mayor Wu of stonewalling discussion of the mandate over Twitter.

How Mayor Wu and City labor unions got to this point

When Mayor Wu announced a vaccine mandate for all city employees that made vaccination a condition of employment on Dec. 20, 2021, the new policy was quickly met with backlash.

In January, three first responder unions — Boston Firefighters Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society — requested Suffolk Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke block enforcement of the mandate.

  • Here’s where things stand for Boston’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Locke ultimately ruled against them, saying public health outweighed their claims of harm.

The three unions then appealed the decision, and an appeal’s court judge issued a temporary stay of the mandate until the court rules on its legality.

This halted the Jan. 31 deadline for employees to get vaccinated or be fired from taking effect — a deadline which had already been extended earlier that month.

While the mandate itself has been locked up in the courts, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association — the department’s largest employee union — attempted to help resolve the issue by voting on a memorandum in agreement with the city, but the memorandum failed.

As a result of the conflict, Boston City Councilors Erin Murphy, Michael Flaherty, and Frank Baker have expressed concern for union rights and dismay that the Council has largely been left out of the decision-making process.

On Feb. 2, Murphy filed a hearing order to discuss the mandate and any potential agreements the city has attempted to reach with its respective employee unions.

Notably, the Boston Police Department and the Boston Fire Department have purported to have vaccination rates of over 95% and 91%, respectively, while Mayor Wu has said more than 95% of all city employees are vaccinated.

Right now, the mayor’s office seems confident in its legal position and may be waiting to see if the appeal’s court upholds the mandate in the wake of its latest effort to quell the conflict.

On the union side, representatives seem eager to keep opposition to the mandate going so as to maintain pressure on Mayor Wu.

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