Coronavirus in New York City, New York Photograph:( Reuters )
The new mandate, put in place after similar requirements for teachers and health care workers led to a surge in vaccinations, is the most aggressive step taken yet to boost vaccination rates in the city
New York City will require all city workers to be vaccinated by the end of the month or lose their paychecks, a new mandate for the nation’s largest municipal workforce and one of the strictest in the country, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.
Starting November 1, city workers — including police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers — must have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and can no longer submit to regular testing as an alternative.
The new mandate, put in place after similar requirements for teachers and health care workers led to a surge in vaccinations, is the most aggressive step taken yet to boost vaccination rates in the city.
"Our public employees are going to lead us out of the COVID era," de Blasio said on MSNBC on Wednesday morning.
New York is one of the first major cities to require vaccination for all of its workers without a testing option. San Francisco set a similar vaccine mandate for its 35,000 city workers that goes into effect November 1.
The mandate in New York applies to roughly 160,000 employees, 46,000 of whom have not received a vaccine dose, city officials said. The city has more than 300,000 workers, but nearly half were already required to be vaccinated.
Any worker who does not get vaccinated by the deadline will be placed on unpaid leave. Medical and religious exemptions will be allowed "for a small number of employees," a city official said.
Those who get their first doses at city-run vaccination sites between now and October 29 will receive an extra $500 in their paychecks, the mayor said.
"We need to reassure all New Yorkers that if you're working with a public employee, they're vaccinated," de Blasio said.
Uniformed correction officers will initially be excluded from the new mandate because of the ongoing staffing crisis at Rikers Island, but they will be required to get vaccinated by December 1, the mayor said.
A major police union, the Police Benevolent Association, vowed Wednesday to fight the mandate in court.
"Now that the city has moved to unilaterally impose a mandate, we will proceed with legal action to protect our members' rights," the union’s president, Patrick J. Lynch, said in a statement.
Harry Nespoli, the president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, the union that represents sanitation workers, said a vaccine mandate wasn’t necessary given that unvaccinated sanitation workers were already regularly tested on a weekly basis.
He noted that garbage pickup and clearing streets of snow required little interaction with the public.
"We don’t come in contact with the public; we don’t hug the public," Nespoli said. "We start at 5 o'clock in the morning. No one's there, and we do what we have to do and we come in."
The new mandate, reported first by The New York Post, builds on a July announcement that all city employees would be required to show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly testing. More than 70 per cent of city workers affected by the new mandate have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, the mayor’s office said.
But vaccination rates vary among city agencies. The Department of Corrections has the lowest vaccination rate, with only 50 per cent of workers having received at least one dose of a vaccine as of last week, according to city data. The second-lowest rate is at the city’s housing authority, where 58 per cent of employees are vaccinated.
The city's fire department, emergency medical services and sanitation workers have similar vaccination rates among their employees; only about 60 per cent have received at least one dose. The city’s police department has a somewhat higher rate of vaccination, with 69 per cent of its workers having received at least one dose.
The vaccine mandate for Department of Education employees led to a vaccination rate of more than 96 per cent among teachers. And a statewide vaccination mandate for hospital and nursing home workers led vaccination rates in those industries to jump to 92 per cent as of the September 27 vaccination deadline, and higher since then.
The city’s police commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, has supported a vaccine mandate for officers, although he acknowledged that it could strain the department if some officers choose to leave rather than get vaccinated.
"There's an unknown there to a degree," Shea said recently. "I think we can handle it. I have 100% confidence in the people in this agency, they’re incredibly resilient."
There have been more than a dozen legal challenges to vaccination mandates in New York City and state, but judges have so far broadly upheld the right of the government to mandate vaccination.
Statewide, health care workers who applied for religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate have won a preliminary injunction that allows many of them to keep working for now, even though religious exemptions were not permitted in the state’s vaccination order for health care workers.
Health care workers who were not vaccinated by the deadline and did not have an exemption have either been put on leave or fired by their private employers. Education employees have one year on unpaid leave, with health insurance, to get vaccinated in an arbitration ruling worked out with the city.
The city will begin working out similar agreements dictating what will happen to unvaccinated employees with each union representing city workers in a process known as "impact bargaining," a city spokesman said. But those workers will not be paid after the deadline, the mayor said.