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Council hears unions’ vaccine concerns

Baker, Murphy, union representatives press Wu admin. to drop mandates

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
Council hears unions’ vaccine concerns
Councilors Frank Baker and Erin Murphy.

At the first in-person hearing for the Boston City Council since the start of the pandemic, leaders of several city workers’ unions on Thursday pleaded their case for Mayor Michelle Wu to drop the controversial mandate that city employees be vaccinated. The policy is in limbo following a court ruling that temporarily paused it from taking effect.

Earlier this month, a state appeals court judge overturned a lower court ruling that upheld the mandate, blocking Wu from enforcing it “until final resolution of this matter.” The Wu administration on Friday filed its own appeal seeking to overturn that ruling.

Wu has already struck a new agreement with the Boston Teacher’s Union which ties unvaccinated workers’ ability to work to certain routinely monitored COVID-19 metrics. That memorandum of agreement now also faces a court challenge. Similar agreements, the mayor’s press office said, have been offered to all of Boston’s unions.

The latest court developments, coupled with Boston’s improving COVID-19 metrics, have made the fate of Wu’s vaccine mandate unclear. At last check, according to the mayor, more than 90 percent of the city’s workforce has complied. The small portion of vocal holdouts, empowered by the appeals court ruling, have signaled their intention to keep up the fight against the policy in the name of collective bargaining rights.

“With the recent injunction, the message today is clear: Mayor Wu should never have attempted to steamroll our labor rights,” said Jeanne Carroll, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation.

The organization was one of the three unions that challenged Wu’s mandate in court, alongside the Boston Firefighters Local 718 and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society.

Boston Public Health Commission Executive Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said the agency will discuss the city’s mask requirement and its two-year-old state of emergency order at its board meeting on March 4.

“We’re at a good place right now, and all of our metrics are trending in the right direction,” said Ojikutu. “So, I think that our decisions are going to be guided by not only these metrics, but all the other factors that we look at as we’re trying to make sure that our Boston residents are safe.”

Councilor Frank Baker pointed to the improving COVID-19 metrics and asked that the mayor revert back to one of the prior agreements that allowed municipal workers to bypass a COVID-19 vaccination by opting into weekly testing.

Union presidents and members at the hearing echoed that reasoning.

“We are asking and we are hopeful that Mayor Wu and other officials throughout the city will now pivot as omicron continues to dissipate, and honor our previously signed agreements for former Mayor Janey,” said Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, a group that did not join the lawsuit.

The three unions that sued over the mandate have argued the city should not be allowed to force vaccination as a condition of employment, particularly after requiring first responders to show up for work in the early days of the pandemic, before vaccines became available. John Soares, president of the Boston firefighters union, implied it would be unjust to terminate workers for not complying with the vaccine mandate now that cases are decreasing.

“We’ve been on this rollercoaster ride,” he said. “We have members of our department who have been working two years, in the beginning of this [pandemic], unvaccinated.”

Councilor Baker, who was a printer for the city until the printing department closed in 2010, also pleaded that the mayor not move forward with terminating workers who fail to get vaccinated.

“This issue is personal to me,” Baker said, recalling the loss of his city job.

Baker said he appreciated the city rescinding the policy requiring proof of vaccination for access to indoor recreation venues like gyms, bar and restaurants and theaters, but “we still have the pending issue of people losing their jobs, people that are dedicated to the city. We still don’t know what’s going to happen with all those people.”

At-Large Councilor Erin Murphy, who chaired the hearing, said she has received “hundreds and hundreds” of calls and emails regarding Boston’s COVID-19 restrictions over the last two months.

Murphy called the hearing days after a small band of protesters disrupted the first City Council meeting of the year insisting that Boston should not maintain its public health emergency declaration, which was declared back in March 2020 and extended the following month.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.

City of Boston, COVID, vaccine mandate