While many of New York City’s bravest heroes were the faces of the pandemic frontlines when we needed them most, these very workers could now find themselves without a paying job due to the current vaccine mandate in New York City.
A sign at a recent protest may sum it up best for some of them: “2020: Essential — 2021: Expendable.”
New York City Vaccine Mandate Hits a Raw Nerve
As of October 29th, city employees must have proof that they have had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. If not, they will be placed on unpaid leave. Prior to this, they merely had to show proof of a negative COVID test.
This is all part of the city’s effort to get city employees vaccinated. Thousands of police officers, firefighters, and various other government workers have been holding off getting the vaccine, but this new mandate makes it harder for them to ignore it.
How Will This Affect Municipal Services?
As of October 23, 73 percent of all police department personnel had received at least the first dose of a COVID vaccine. However, this left over a quarter of its workforce at risk of being put on unpaid leave for noncompliance. The NYPD has not addressed what it will do if many of its staff and officers are taken out of commission due to the mandate.
As of last week, the city’s fire department reported that it was looking at closing 20 percent of its stations and putting 20 percent fewer ambulances in operation if the mandate was upheld. While that has not happened, so far, it is estimated that one of every 20 firefighter teams are not working right now, many as a result of a sick call-out.
Legal Action Struck Down, Protests Crop Up
These times try the best of us. While most of the city’s law enforcement officers and firefighters have been ready to put their lives on the line for others during the height of the pandemic, it seems that they are drawing the line on how much they are willing to personally risk when it comes to vaccination. Protests are cropping up daily, with many protesters vaccinated but showing solidarity for their anti-vax co-workers.
In the meantime, legal action by the Police Benevolent Association, labeled their “last stand,” was struck down last week when New York Judge Lizette Colon refused to pause the mandate after hearing both attorneys for the PBA and the city.
Lawyers for the union, representing approximately 23,000 current and retired officers, said that the mandate required officers to choose between their beliefs and their careers, infringing on their “right to bodily integrity.” Judge Colon disagreed.
Just hours before the mandate went into effect, the NYC Police Pension Fund held a drive for any officers who were considering retiring instead of vaccinating. It was not reported how many took them up on this.
The Legal Issues
Of course, New York City is not the only jurisdiction that is grappling with vaccine mandates. Legal challenges have been popping up across the country since mandates for masks and vaccines have been discussed. But, so far, cases continue to rule in favor of mandates, with the legal precedent set back in 1905 when Jacobson v. Massachusetts established the right to require smallpox vaccination. Generally, an employer has the right to require an employee to be vaccinated and schools have been requiring this for years.
In the case of New York City, it will be interesting to watch what transpires legally. While the city cannot fire municipal workers, it does have the right to suspend them without pay.
A Violation of Civil Rights?
Are vaccine mandates a violation of civil rights?
According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s take on vaccine mandates, “Given the widespread and devastating impact of COVID-19, the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines approved or authorized for emergency use by the FDA, and the absence of an equally effective and less intrusive alternative, COVID-19 vaccination mandates can be consistent with civil liberties principles.
However, the permissibility of any mandate will depend on a fact-specific, case-by-case inquiry, and changing circumstances.”
Will the courts begin to see civil rights cases as a result of these vaccine mandates? As these matters are now in a constant state of flux, time will tell.