The vaccine mandate for Philadelphia city workers has been delayed until at least Feb. 11, after a decision Tuesday by a labor arbitration panel that requires police officers to comply.
Like other city workers, officers may request vaccination exemptions for medical or religious reasons, but those whose requests are denied or who otherwise fail to show proof of vaccination will be placed on leave and could be fired.
In its ruling, the arbitration panel noted it took into account that the department has “struggled to contain an epidemic of gun violence.” The department says it is at its lowest staffing levels in years and is struggling to recruit new cops.
The decision marks the third arrangement between Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and the city’s major unions over the vaccine mandate, which was first announced in November.
It’s possible the policy covering 22,000 unionized employees could be delayed even further because the previous labor agreements — with District Councils 33 and 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing the city’s non-uniformed workers — included provisions pushing back the vaccination deadlines for their members if other unions secured later compliance dates.
The ruling for the FOP also says that if another union secures a later deadline, police can’t be fired for not getting vaccinated until that union’s deadline has passed. The only major union yet to reach an agreement with the administration is the firefighters union, which has been the most resistant to the policy.
A handful of other major cities have vaccine mandates for employees, including New York and Chicago.
New city employees must comply with the mandate, and the mayor’s office said 99% of the city’s 3,300 nonunion employees are in compliance with a vaccine mandate that took effect Dec. 1. The city also requires vaccination for health-care workers, as well as anyone entering a restaurant or other indoor establishment that serves food.
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, encouraged the union’s 6,500 members Tuesday to file for a medical or religious exemption “if needed.”
Officers who get their first shot by Feb. 11 can receive a $500 bonus, higher than the $300 offered to other city workers in previous labor agreements. The president of DC33, which represents roughly 9,500 blue-collar city workers, said in a statement the union’s members are entitled “to any and all benefits received by the FOP.”
The new Feb. 11 deadline set by the FOP decision is when the city plans to begin enforcing the policy for all unionized workers, but it’s unclear if the uncertainty involving the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 could affect the mandate’s implementation. The Kenney administration is seeking to begin arbitration proceedings with Local 22, which could result in a binding decision forcing the union’s members to comply.
“We’ve been waiting for a response from IAFF Local 22 on initiating the arbitration process, and we plan to take appropriate next steps to enforce this mandate upon the timeline provided in the FOP award,” Kenney spokesperson Joy Huertas said in a statement.
Local 22 president Mike Bresnan said he wants to negotiate an agreement directly instead of going through arbitration.
“We’re against a mandate that says, ‘You do this, or you lose your job,’ no matter what it is,” Bresnan said Tuesday. “We take that oath of office at the Fire Department. It’s the understanding you may die in the line of duty, and this is just one more thing on our plate. There’s other viruses out there that could kill you, too.”
Bresnan said he would be open to an agreement requiring firefighters and paramedics wear N-95 masks or double-mask and participate in weekly testing, but will not support a vaccine requirement. The Fire Department is estimated to have the lowest vaccination rate of any city agency, with 61% to 70% of firefighters and paramedics vaccinated as of Tuesday.
The Mayor’s Office estimates that 71% to 80% of police are vaccinated.
Officers can apply for a medical exemption by having a health-care provider sign off on a request and confirm they have a condition preventing them from getting the vaccine. For a religious exemption, the officer must submit a written statement detailing their “sincerely held” belief. Requests based simply on moral or philosophical reasons will be denied.
Those who don’t get their first shot or submit an exemption request by Feb. 11 will be required to either double-mask or wear an N-95 mask, and submit to testing twice a week. The arbitration panel will reconvene after Feb. 18, and if it doesn’t change course, officers who refuse to comply with the mandate or whose exemption requests weren’t approved will be placed on “unvaccinated leave” beginning March 1.
Those placed on leave will be required to use paid time off and, once that is exhausted, will not be paid. After 15 days, they could face dismissal. Police whose exemptions are denied can appeal and, if they do so by the end of February, they may still work while the appeal is pending, but they must follow the masking and testing requirements.
The arbitration panel can get involved in the process of dealing with workers who do not comply with the vaccine mandate before they are terminated, a process that could take until March 21. That provision is more flexible than the AFSCME agreements.