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The vaccine mandate for Philadelphia city employees keeps getting delayed due to labor disputes

The city’s four major unions each sought separate agreements with the administration over how the vaccine mandate would be managed, delaying its implementation until the labor disputes are resolved.

The Kenney administration has twice delayed its vaccine mandate for city workers.
The Kenney administration has twice delayed its vaccine mandate for city workers.Read moreErin Blewett

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has indefinitely delayed its vaccine mandate for the city’s 22,000 unionized employees due to unresolved labor disputes over its implementation, putting Philadelphia farther behind other cities where mandates have been on the books for months.

The policy, which was announced in November, was supposed to take effect Jan. 14. But the city’s four major unions each sought separate agreements with the administration over how the vaccine mandate would be managed, postponing its implementation until the labor disputes come to a resolution.

The mandate requires workers to show proof of vaccination or obtain an exemption for religious or medical reasons. If they fail to do so, workers will be placed on unpaid leave for two weeks, and, if they have not begun getting vaccinated by the end of that period, they will be fired.

The first labor agreement on the mandate, with District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the city’s 9,500 blue-collar city workers, included a provision in which the start of the mandate for the union’s members would be delayed if other unions secured a later implementation deadline.

The next agreement, with the 3,700 white-collar District Council 47 of AFSCME, included a Jan. 24 start date.

But the 6,500-member Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and the 2,600-member International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 sought arbitration panels to hash out their concerns over the policy, and those decisions are still pending.

The administration announced Friday that the mandate would be delayed until the FOP arbitration award was issued, which the city said is expected “in the coming weeks.”

The police and fire departments are the two least vaccinated city agencies, according to mayor’s office estimates, with 61% to 70% of workers inoculated.

The city’s 3,300 nonunion employees have been subject to a vaccine mandate since December, and the city has seen 99% compliance with the rule, the mayor’s office said.

With the latest delay, Philadelphia lags even farther behind big cities that already force their workers to get jabbed.

New York City’s vaccine mandate for municipal employees has been in effect since November, and newly inaugurated Mayor Eric Adams has said he may add a booster shot on top of the existing requirement. Chicago’s mandate became active in October, and Los Angeles’ in December.

Other cities have seen more active resistance amid pressure from anti-mandate activists and a string of lawsuits against President Joe Biden’s administration over its federal vaccine guidelines.

Texas maintains a statewide ban on vaccine mandates for local governments and private businesses. Officials in Phoenix sought to get its workforce inoculated by mid-January, but withdrew the campaign amid pushback.

Philly isn’t the only municipality where local officials and labor unions are split over vaccines. In Columbus, Ohio, labor groups have interrupted the city’s attempts to push vaccines onto the workforce.

Enforcement also remains an issue, even in cities that offer the option of vaccination or testing. In Houston, where a “vax or test” requirement for city workers has been on the books since September, compliance rates have varied widely between departments, according to the local NPR affiliate.

Vaccination rates also vary from department to department in Philly. As of Wednesday, the city reported that most departments stood between 71% and 100% vaccinated. Only the police and fire departments ranked at or lower than 70%.

Meanwhile, the omicron wave has triggered ongoing disruptions to city services due to virus-related employee absences. Staff shortages have led to trash pickup delays, with more than a fifth of collection trucks out of service one day this month due to absences, and the police department has said staffing can be a challenge.

Even as new coronavirus cases began to decline this week, the surge’s workforce impact will likely linger for several more weeks.