Lenox Ave FDNY fire

WON’T BE AS EASY PUTTING OUT THE FIRE WITHIN: While the Fire Department was able to muster roughly 200 firefighters and Emergency Medical Service employees to deal with this 5-alarm fire on Lenox Ave. in Manhattan earlier this month, a greater number of firefighters are currently at risk of being terminated if they refuse to be vaccinated by Dec. 1. Both fire unions have warned their members that it’s unlikely the city will agree to the terms they are seeking that would allow those suspended workers to resume weekly testing as an alternative to Mayor de Blasio’s vaccine mandate, leaving their hopes hinging on a court ruling that would go against the trend of other decisions on the issue.

Both the Uniformed Firefighters Association and Uniformed Fire Officers Association are telling members who are on unpaid leave because they have refused to be vaccinated that they shouldn't expect a last-minute deal before the de Blasio administration moves to terminate them.

While most of the major municipal unions have reached agreements on procedures governing the implementation of Mayor de Blasio's vaccine mandate, all the fire and police unions have not and continue to challenge the mandate in court.

'Risk Losing Everything'

"At this point in time, we are letting our members know they have a decision to make: do they want to continue to be a New York City Firefighter, or do they want to wait it out and hope the lawsuits work," UFA President Andy Ansbro said. "We are being honest with them about where this is going. The days of holding out and thinking this might have a positive outcome are closing. If they want to continue to fight, they have to be ready to lose everything."

When asked how soon his members who were resisting the vaccine might be terminated, Mr. Ansbro said the "city invented leave without pay. It's not part of our contract. So we really don't know."

Both he and UFOA President James McCarthy said the issue went beyond the vaccine to what they regarded as a dangerous precedent if the Mayor could impose a mandate without first sitting down with the unions—although there were intensive negotiations between the two sides early this month that couldn't resolve their differences.

While the Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella group for city unions, has negotiated a Memorandum of Agreement covering leave procedures and rights for the holdouts that has been embraced by virtually all the largest civilian unions as well as those representing sanitation workers at all levels, "we are not agreeing to that because we have to waive our legal rights to sue or go to the courts for redress," said Mr. McCarthy. "At best, it would gain some people an extension of [health-care coverage], perhaps at the most eight months at the far end, and really just to Dec. 1 or the middle of December for the people on leave without pay. There was a lot of compromise for a small amount of gain--a temporary reprieve."

Down to 2,600 Holdouts

At his Nov. 10 press briefing, Mr. de Blasio said that the number of city employees on leave without pay over the  mandate had dropped from 9,000 nine days earlier to "only 2,600, or less than one percent" of the city's workforce.

He declined to set a "drop-dead deadline" for possible termination for the holdout FDNY and NYPD employees who remain on unpaid leave as the court fight proceeds.

"We still have an open door to unions that want to come in and do that impact bargaining and come to an agreement," the Mayor said. "We have had 23 unions since the Oct. 20 announcement that have come to an agreement with us. That's a striking number, representing over 100,000 employees."

On Nov. 4, the initial accord was reached with nine unions led by District Council 37 that lays out the process for  employees to apply for religious or medical exemptions, while detailing the terms and conditions for workers who opt to leave their jobs without applying for an exemption.

As part of that agreement, those unions dropped lawsuits challenging the mandate while gaining an extension of health coverage for several months for their union members who choose to forsake their jobs.

Other Unions on Board

Among the other unions that accepted the deal were the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, the Sanitation Officers Association and the Sanitation Chiefs Association; Communications Workers of America Local 1180, the Civil Service Bar Association, Service Employees International Union Local 300 and Teamsters Local 237.

In August, Mr. de Blasio mandated that all 150,000 Department of Education employees be vaccinated and successfully defended his order in court. The United Federation of Teachers, however, sought an order to negotiate from the state Public Employment Relations Board that allowed it to bargain conditions for members seeking medical or religious exemptions.

While the percentage of FDNY employees that are vaccinated continues to climb every day, several hundred Firefighters are still sidelined as well as 70 fire officers in the ranks of Lieutenant and above.

The department has close to 2,000 employees seeking religious or medical exemptions, a status that permits them to continue working while submitting to weekly coronavirus testing.

Pressure Got Results

Currently 84 percent of firefighters are vaccinated, up from 58 percent before the mandate. Emergency Medical Service workers' vaccination rate has jumped from 61 percent last month to 91 percent.

Two Fire Department said an internal document had circulated among management that would notify holdouts that on Dec. 1 they would be required to return their employee IDs and any city-issued equipment.

The department's press office referred questions about a termination timeline to City Hall.

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