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Philly’s largest union for city workers says it won’t oppose a vaccine mandate

The conditional green light from the politically powerful union is a major step toward the city successfully implementing a vaccine mandate.

Ernest Garrett, president of AFSCME District Council 33, says he will not object if Philadelphia implements a vaccine mandate for municipal workers, but wants to ensure it includes religious and medical exemptions.
Ernest Garrett, president of AFSCME District Council 33, says he will not object if Philadelphia implements a vaccine mandate for municipal workers, but wants to ensure it includes religious and medical exemptions.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s largest union for city workers won’t object if Mayor Jim Kenney requires municipal employees be vaccinated.

“We have to be supportive” if the city pursues a mandate, Ernest Garrett, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 33, said in an interview Tuesday. But he will push to ensure the city includes broad exceptions for medical or religious reasons.

“We just have to make sure that the needs of the men and women are met as well,” he said, and “make sure there are safeguards in place for those who wish not to be vaccinated for whether it be health reasons or religious reasons.”

The conditional green light from the politically powerful DC 33, which represents 9,500 blue-collar city workers such as crossing guards and sanitation workers, is a major step toward the city successfully implementing a vaccine mandate for its workers.

On Monday, Kenney called a potential vaccine mandate an “HR issue” that will require cooperation with labor.

“I don’t want to twist anybody’s arm to do it, but we’ll try to figure out a way to get people to cooperate,” Kenney said.

Garrett’s comments come a day after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers took a similar stance, saying it supports a vaccine mandate for school employees with limited exemptions. The union representing school bus drivers and other workers — 32BJ SEIU — also said Tuesday that it was open to a mandate as long as it doesn’t “supersede the rights of labor unions to bargain work conditions.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s teachers’ union supports a vaccine mandate. But Mayor Kenney is still trying to convince city workers.

But not everyone is on board. Michael Bresnan, president of Local 22 of the International Fire Fighters and Paramedics Union, said Tuesday that the Kenney administration had not discussed a mandate with him and would have to negotiate with the union if it wanted to pursue one.

“We will not tolerate any of our members being disciplined in any manner for not being vaccinated,” Bresnan said.

Bresnan also framed his concerns about a vaccine mandate in national politics and misrepresented comments made by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris before they took office.

”I am personally a little confused with a mandate now, especially since President Biden and VP Harris were questioning the vaccine when President Trump was in office,” said Bresnan, whose union endorsed Trump in the November election.

Bresnan was referring Biden and Harris’ 2020 comments raising concerns about Trump pushing for the vaccine to be approved before testing was completed. Biden and Harris, however, have not questioned the safety or efficacy of the vaccine once it gained federal approval.

Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 has declined to comment on the issue, and AFSCME District Council 47, which represents the city’s white-collar workers, has not responded to requests for comment.

All four of the city’s major municipal unions, representing 22,300 of the city’s 26,800 employees, are currently in negotiations or interest arbitration proceedings with the Kenney administration over new contracts that will determine wages, benefits, and some worker safety rules going forward.

» READ MORE: Police reform, worker safety, and city finances are at stake in Philly’s first union negotiations since the pandemic

Unlike some other unions that have commented on the issue, Garrett said he doesn’t believe the city has to reach an agreement with DC 33 to require its members be vaccinated.

“We don’t make agreements as far as a mandate. A mandate is something they could simply do as an employer,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that the process is done fairly.”

Garrett said he expects the mandate exemptions will be loosely enforced. If a person claims a religious objection, for instance, he doesn’t expect the city to question that worker.

“Are we going to start dissecting every religion?” he said.

Stopping the coronavirus pandemic is personal for Garrett, who spent 16 days in the hospital in November after being infected. He’s encouraging all of his members to get vaccinated, and the union has hosted a vaccination clinic at its headquarters in University City.

“I don’t know why someone could see this type of devastation and not want a vaccine,” he said.

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke on Tuesday announced that all Council members and employees will be required to be vaccinated before the Sept. 16 start of the fall legislative session, the first branch of city government to require its workers to be vaccinated.

All 17 members of Council are already vaccinated, according to an Inquirer survey of lawmakers. Kenney is also inoculated, having received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in March.

Council this week will hold its first in-person hearing since the early days of the pandemic. The Committee on Public Health and Human Services will hold a meeting Wednesday on the city’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis at the Lewis Elkins Elementary School in Kensington.

In a statement, Clarke said it was important for members to return to in-person meetings because the “public has a right to see and participate in the business of their City Council.”

“At the same time, we must balance that right with public health and safety,” Clarke said. “With the rise in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant, we must act to protect the public and Council. That’s why we are requiring that all Council employees be vaccinated.”