NYC Teachers Union Fights For Medical And Religious Exemptions To COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

The New York City teachers union has formally requested the state to intervene against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaccine mandate for all city Department of Education employees, calling it “draconian” and a violation of due process with less than two weeks to go until the first day of public school September 13th.

The union said the city is not cooperating in carving out medical and religious exemptions to the vaccination mandate, which goes into effect September 27th for 148,000 DOE employees. That includes teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers and custodians who must show proof of at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the effective date.

The vaccine mandate “eviscerates the due process and collective bargaining rights of educators who could lose their livelihoods, health benefits and pensions, and disregards those who for whom vaccination is medically contraindicated or violates a sincerely-held religious belief of employees,” the union said in a filing with the state Public Employment Relations Board Wednesday. They added that in recent bargaining sessions the city has shown it “has no intention of budging from its inflexible stance or including the UFT in any meaningful bargaining concerning the implementation of the City’s vaccination policy.”

In a statement, DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said, “The health and safety of New York City children and the protection of our employees is at the core of the vaccine mandate. We will continue to negotiate with the UFT to reach a successful agreement because that is what’s best for our school communities.”

The PERB will mediate a session between the union and the city, according to Chalkbeat. If there is no agreement, the UFT and the city will then head to arbitration.

The vaccine mandate for the DOE employees is one of the strictest for a city agency, with no option to provide negative COVID test results instead to continue working inside a school building.

De Blasio’s mandate goes further than the policy that he had announced earlier this summer for all city workers, including teachers, that requires vaccination or weekly testing. It applies to the city’s traditional public schools and includes any charter schools that are co-located with them. The mandate does not apply to pre-K teachers at community-based organizations outside the city’s school buildings, bus drivers or private schools. The latter can set their own rules and are governed by the state.

The city hasn’t specified what will happen to non-compliant DOE employees, with de Blasio saying on August 23rd that City Hall would be working “through the penalties” and that “there will clearly be consequences if someone doesn’t comply.” De Blasio also said the city would handle DOE employees’ medical concerns on a case-by-case basis. “If someone has a serious medical condition, that’s something we’ll work with doctors to address,” he said.

But the UFT said negotiations with the city have now stalled over whether employees with medical issues or employees with religious objections to the vaccination mandate could work remotely.

“According to city negotiators, those with medical issues could stay on the payroll until their sick days are used up, and then go on unpaid leave, while those with religious objections would immediately go on unpaid leave. In both cases those on leave would lose not only their salaries but also their health insurance,” the union said in a statement Thursday.

The UFT said unvaccinated DOE employees should be granted permission to work remotely, noting that there will be thousands of students expected to enroll in a remote learning program for medically-vulnerable kids as well as other administrative duties that could be done outside schools.

“There are estimated to be at least 5,000 students on ‘home instruction’ this upcoming school year and there are a variety of other tasks – among them curricular development, academic and social screening as well as school data management and analysis – that can be done outside the classroom setting,” the union’s filing with the state said.

The UFT said it supports vaccination and safe COVID-19 classroom practices in general, noting that nearly 80% of its union membership have gotten vaccinated. The union also agreed with city officials that the DOE’s COVID-19 protocols “thus far have resulted in schools being among the safest public spaces in New York City,” the union filing said.

New York state banned religious exemptions for student vaccinations in 2019. Clinical trials and real-world assessment of the vaccines so far have shown that the only medical condition that could prevent people from getting the shot is a severe allergy, which has only occurred in 2 to 5 people per million who take the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines. Even in those cases, doctors can reverse the consequences with allergy meds.

The UFT filing also noted that Governor Kathy Hochul has spoken about the possibility of weekly testing in absence of a vaccination mandate for school districts across the state.

Other labor groups have filed legal actions against the vaccine mandate: “DC 37 — which represents school aides, lunchroom workers and other staffers along with thousands of other city employees — said it would file an unfair labor practices complaint with the state,” the Associated Press reported. The Municipal Labor Committee also voted to take legal action and force the city to negotiate details of implementation, including penalties and medical exceptions.