fire inspectors masks

EFFORTS UNAPPRECIATED?: City Fire Prevention Inspectors are among the District Council 37 members who in the early months of the pandemic took on extra duties, in their case by handing out masks and visiting businesses to explain city virus protocols. The union is among those lamenting that those efforts have been disregarded as the de Blasio administration sifts through requests by those who have refused to be vaccinated to gain religious or medical exemptions that would allow them to avert discipline.

Dec. 1 passed without the de Blasio administration following through on its Nov. 4 vaccine pact with 23 unions led by District Council to begin "unilaterally" separating city employees who had neither provided proof of their first vaccination nor filed for a religious or medical exemption.

Under the five-page agreement, signed days after Mayor de Blasio's Oct. 29 deadline for all city employees except correction officers to be vaccinated, holdouts were offered an "off-ramp" to ensure continuation of their health benefits and the ability to retire.

Those on Board

In addition to DC 37, the agreement was signed on by unions including the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association and two unions representing superior officers in that agency, Communications Workers of America Local 1180 and Teamsters Local 237.

It covered roughly 88,000 city workers not included in prior mandates who work for the Departments of Education and Health and Mental Hygiene and NYC Health + Hospitals.

"Employees may not use accrued time to cover periods of leave without pay due to the vaccination mandate," the agreement stated. "However, if an employee files an application for retirement and the employee signs a waiver that they are irrevocably resigning from employment, the employee shall be permitted to exhaust applicable leave balances."

When asked to comment on the administration's decision not to begin terminating non-compliant workers, mayoral spokeswoman Laura Feyer replied, "Our goal is to get employees vaccinated, and that is happening every day."

Two high-level sources within the administration confirmed that the city was not yet starting the termination process. 

Holdouts Dwindling

According to the Mayor's Office, the number of employees on leave without pay over the vaccine has dropped considerably from the 9,000 reported when the mandate kicked in a month ago. There is now a 94-percent vaccination rate among the city's 380,000 employees, compared to 81.4 percent for the general adult population. Over 88 percent of eligible adults have gotten their first shot.

"But we also know, and we've seen this now time again, with health care workers, Department of Education employees, with the other uniformed services, that a lot of people choose to get vaccinated after the deadline," Mr. de Blasio told reporters at his Dec. 1 briefing. "The most striking example is the Fire Department. It too was at 77 percent the day of the deadline. It is now up to 92 percent-plus."

The administration's easing away from the Dec. 1 deadline followed its decision to ignore the Thanksgiving deadline initially set by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for ruling on employee applications for exemptions from the vaccine mandate.

Updated numbers reported by Gothamist the day before Thanksgiving indicated that the total requests had swelled from 12,000 to roughly 14,400, including 6,100 from police officers, 1,500 from firefighters and 1,300 from Sanitation Workers.

Slightly More Denials 

On Nov. 29, the Mayor's Press Office notified reporters that 27 percent of the requests for reasonable accommodation under a religious or medical exemption had been processed.

"As of last night [Nov. 28], 1,422 requests have been approved, and 1,710 have been denied. These numbers are a snapshot in time--they are constantly moving as agencies process the requests," the email stated. "As a reminder, an employee has the right to appeal a reasonable accommodation denial. Those are also being processed."

Several union leaders said the Mayor's missed deadlines and uncertainty about the status of the thousands of city workers applying for an exemption had created unnecessary anxiety for some members.

The city has lost roughly 400 employees to the coronavirus with tens of thousands sidelined by it. Essential workers among the group often brought the virus home to their families.

Failure to Communicate

CWA President Gloria Middleton, who represents thousands of administrative managers, said Dec. 2 that she had not gotten from City Hall the the status of members who were either applying for a religious or medical exemption or pushed off payroll, potentially facing termination. She blamed the Mayor's decision to impose a vaccine mandate, rather than working with the Municipal Labor Committee to work out terms, for what views as a disjointed implementation of the mandate.

"He waited until the ninth hour to say 'OK, I am putting up this mandate and the members have to do this and that by a certain time.'"

That strategy, she said "drove the MLC crazy" because it contradicted existing labor law that "requires you to discuss the terms and conditions of employment when you are saying workers are going to be off payroll if they don't comply."

She continued, "This man chose to make his dates and not to talk to us ahead of time, and here we are at the 11th hour rushing and running to court to make him push back dates [regarding] what happens to the unvaccinated people--which is just deplorable."

Rising Retirement Rates

Ms. Middleton dozens of her members had responded by retiring, with 50 going in a single month, which she said was far higher than during in pre-pandemic times.

DC 37 Director of Communications Freddi Goldstein said in an email, "The current situation only validates our concern from the start: the decision to require vaccines was made hastily with not enough time for workers to apply for exemptions, let alone for the City to respond to them. It's not fair for these employees who have given so much throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to be stuck in limbo. The City must work faster."

Under the Nov. 4 agreement, which came a week after City Hall's Oct. 29 deadline, the unions stipulated that their members who had submitted their application for an exemption by Nov. 2, would "remain working and on payroll and subject to weekly COVID testing while the awaiting the initial determination from the agency or appeal decision by the City panel."

The city panel is composed of DCAS, the city's Law Department and either the DOHMH for medical exemptions or the City Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) for religious exemptions.

'No Transparency'

DC 37 Local 983 President Joe Puleo, who represents 4,000 mostly blue-collar members, said the local was assisting the roughly 150 who believe they have legitimate religious or medical grounds for exemptions. 

"I have one member with an extremely rare heart disease that her doctor, who has been practicing medicine for decades, has only seen five times in his entire career--there's only 20,000 cases worldwide," Mr. Puleo said. "It's the kind of thing where a person with this can be talking perfectly normally and their heart rate randomly accelerates with no warning."

He had yet to hear about that Parks worker's case.

Part of the challenge for the unions is that these applications for religious or medical exemptions are considered confidential because they are handled through the city's EEO protocols.

"This means I have to get data from the membership, so there's no transparency across agencies and you can't actually track the city's progress on the backlog of applications for the reasonable accommodations," Mr. Puleo said.

Rumors and Divisions

That, he added, has resulted in the proliferation of rumors about who got exemptions and what religion the applicant adheres to or what medical condition they had to qualify for. "It's dividing us," he said.

"It's non-stop and it's eating up the resources of my reps," he said. "If we are taking care of these cases, as we must, we can't do the health and safety work nor the grievances that we are also obligated to handle."

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