Vaccine Mandate Refusal Sidelines Two Dozen Chicago (IL) Fire Department Personnel

Alice Yin and John Byrne

Chicago Tribune


CHICAGO — A judge heard arguments Thursday in the Chicago police union’s lawsuit challenging the city’s vaccine mandate, while the union representing Fire Department employees confirmed about two dozen firefighters and paramedics have been placed on no-pay status for their refusal to report their vaccine status.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 sued the city earlier this month over Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s shot reporting rule. At the same time, the city also took the FOP to court after its leadership openly encouraged members to defy the rule.

Thursday’s hearing in front of Cook County Judge Raymond Mitchell centered on the FOP’s motion for a restraining order to force arbitration over the vaccination policy — and suspend implementing the mandate until the proceeding concludes, with the exception that officers do regular COVID-19 tests.

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The mounting dispute stems from the directive Lightfoot announced in August, which FOP Lodge 7 President John Catanzara has vehemently protested by posting multiple videos instructing his members to disobey the order. His statements led to concern that the police force would be depleted over mass noncompliance. A temporary restraining order barred Catanzara from publicly encouraging further defiance, but that rule expired Monday.

Those who are unvaccinated can instead undergo regular COVID-19 testing for the rest of the year.

A Wednesday court filing from the city said 32 Chicago police officers were placed on no-pay status for refusing to report their vaccine status, the deadline for which was Oct. 15. Five of them later complied.

Firefighters Union Local 2 President Jim Tracy on Thursday said the city had put about 14 paramedics and 12 firefighters on no-pay status for refusing to report their vaccine status. And he said many other paramedics aren’t answering their phones when the department calls them on their days off to see if they can pick up extra shifts, because they’re worried the call is to order them to report to Fire Department headquarters to report their vaccine status.

As a result, Tracy said that on Wednesday, three fire trucks were shifted from advanced life support to basic life support status, meaning there was no paramedic on board trained to give the highest level of medical assistance in the field.

“This could drive response times up. It has the potential to be the difference between life and death, in terms of the response time for someone who needs help to get ALS assistance,” Tracy said.

Tracy said the city should lift the Dec. 31 deadline for city employees to get vaccinated, and instead let workers who don’t want the vaccine to keep getting tested.

“It should absolutely be addressed sooner than later,” he said. “It’s a shame. I hope nobody gets hurt because of the response time.”

Neither the mayor’s office nor the Fire Department has responded to requests for comment. According to a city court filing, 86% of fire department employees have submitted their vaccination status.

The number of police officers who have filled out the form has risen slightly, from 65% to 71% compliance with Lightfoot’s reporting mandate as of earlier this week. Police Superintendent David Brown has said many staffers are choosing to obey after speaking with higher-ups about how the mandate works.

But there are still potentially thousands more police officers and other personnel who have not yielded, leaving questions about the potential effect on public safety if the standoff continues.

In court Thursday, lawyers for the city and the FOP debated the union’s motion for a restraining order to force arbitration over the vaccination policy. The union also wants the implementation of the mandate suspended until the proceedings conclude, with the exception that officers do regular COVID-19 tests.

In filing the request, the plaintiffs wrote that the city is relying on “a stream of histrionics about the dangers of COVID-19 to support its claim” that such “unilateral implementation” of its policy would outweigh the four bargaining agreements with Chicago police unions.

Mitchell said he will issue a written ruling by Monday. He gave little indication where he stood but noted what the FOP is seeking is “an extraordinary remedy on top of an extraordinary remedy” because it involves a potential restraining order over a labor dispute.

The FOP lawyer, Joel D’Alba, maintained that officers face irreparable harm if stripped of police powers. As for those who end up getting vaccinated because of Lightfoot’s policy, he said, “Once you have something in your arm, no one can take it out.”

“They slammed down our throats a unilateral change,” D’Alba said. “That’s the most offensive thing an employer can do.”

Mitchell also noted the city is in a bind — or, as he put it, a “zone of twilight.” He questioned what the city will do come Jan. 1, when the provision that unvaccinated employees can submit to COVID-19 testing expires. A lawyer with the city, Michael Warner, replied that officers would once again face being placed into no-pay status.

Warner added the city is not opposed to arbitration but disagrees that the courts should oversee the negotiation and timing of the process. And he remained confident that the city would prevail in arbitration.

“The psychic harm of complying with an order you disagree with is not something covered by the collective bargaining agreement,” Warner said.

Meanwhile, more than 100 Chicago firefighters and other city employees have gone to federal court seeking a freeze on vaccine mandate orders by Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker. U.S. District Judge John Lee is scheduled to rule on the request — which he said “puzzled” him — on Friday.

“This momentum is building,” Catanzara said in a YouTube video on posted Wednesday evening. “It’s kind of nonstop here.”

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