By Alice Yin and Gregory Pratt
CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot will put Chicago police officers and other city employees who do not receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sunday into non-disciplinary status without pay, her administration announced Friday night.
The city will also consider disciplining workers, though that will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis as the Lightfoot administration balances its public health policies with personnel issues within the police department.
“Any city employees, including Chicago police officers, who fail to comply may also be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination. These decisions will be made at the individual and departmental level, and are made in a manner that will not impact public safety or the continuity of day-to-day government operations,” his office said in a statement.
Lightfoot’s latest statement comes after the city won another round in court this week in its legal battle with the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police over the vaccine mandate. But she faces pressure not just from the police union – which has appealed the latest court ruling and says the warrant will lead to an exodus of officers – but also from a group of aldermen still seeking to cancel the rule.
The lawsuit filed last year by the Fraternal Order of Police Flag 7 and other police unions against the city resulted in a February arbitration award that upheld the requirement for city employees to be vaccinated and set this Sunday as the deadline for obtaining the first vaccine.
A judge’s decision this week to reject the union’s request to reconsider and lift an earlier order suspending the vaccination policy was a further setback for the local FOP, whose president John Catanzara has insisted for months on the fact that the warrant violated the unions’ collective agreements.
The FOP appealed the decision, but Catanzara acknowledged its membership in an online video Friday that unvaccinated officers could be placed on unpaid status Monday. However, he said the arbitrator indicated on Friday that officers who have pending vaccine waiver requests will be excused from the rule until they receive a ruling, and those who are denied exemptions will be given a six-week reprieve. Catanzara said hundreds of officers could fall into this category.
These statements could not be immediately confirmed by a representative of the town hall.
When announcing the appeal on Wednesday, Catanzara said, “I don’t know what will happen in the next 72 hours. All I can tell you is that we are not going to stop knocking. All of this can easily be avoided before this cliff becomes a reality.
The “cliff” referred to the just under 2,800 Chicago police officers who are still unvaccinated – and, according to Catanzara, could soon leave the police force unless they obtain religious or medical exemptions to the policy of vaccination.
In recent weeks, Catanzara has sounded the alarm over what he said will be a “bloodbath” in Chicago if his predictions of a mass resignation come true. He did not immediately respond to questions on Friday about why he thinks a substantial portion of those 2,800 officers will quit.
As of March 3, 30 police department members and 21 fire department employees were without pay, according to a city spokesperson. Some city workers have lost their pay for not meeting an earlier deadline for reporting their vaccination status or for submitting to weekly COVID-19 tests.
The arbitrator’s decision noted that 6,621 Chicago police officers had applied for religious exemptions in December, of which about 58% were still awaiting approval or denial. Only 1.5% of requests were granted.
Citywide, 11% of all housing has been granted, while 52% is on hold, according to the ruling.
In February, Catanzara urged union members who were denied exemptions to continue to submit demands and even file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging “discrimination in health care”. This is all to pave the way for a future legal battle over the exemption process itself, he said.
Also on Friday, 12 aldermen sent a letter to Lightfoot saying they would call a special council meeting if it did not address their concerns about the vaccination mandate. Council members reported a “clear and present danger” to public safety if first responders were to be disciplined. The aldermen also pointed to the “natural immunity” of workers who have been infected with COVID-19 – which public health experts do not recommend as a substitute for vaccination – and condemned what they called the numbers “ unbalanced” for exemptions in city services.
“We cannot afford to lose another police officer, firefighter, paramedic and municipal worker at this critical time,” the aldermen wrote.
Under Lightfoot’s directive, all city employees had until Oct. 15 to report their vaccination status, but could choose to undergo regular COVID-19 testing, rather than getting vaccinated, until the end of the month. ‘year. However, after police unions challenged the vaccine mandate in court, a judge suspended the December 31 date for members to be fully vaccinated, saying it had to go through arbitration.
Other unions representing city workers, including firefighters, tried to do the same but failed when an arbitrator sided with the city in December. In February, the same referee also inflicted a defeat on the police unions.
As the city’s new deadline for the first shot approaches, Lightfoot faces some tough choices about enforcing the warrant. The police department’s workforce has dropped significantly since 2019, and the city is struggling to recruit replacements for cops who quit their jobs. Chicago is also in the midst of a major crime spike that began in early 2020.
Cook County Judge Raymond Mitchell, in rejecting the FOP’s offer to reject the arbitration outcome on Wednesday, pleaded for the two sides to reunite despite the contentious route they have taken. While nodding his belief that “Chicago needs its police” and that “extraordinary and relentless challenges” plagued both city leaders and police, the judge said he was not too late to sit down again.
“These are tough times. Relations may have frayed,” Mitchell wrote. “But even now, the parties to this case still have the power to…negotiate a compromise.”
That same day, Catanzara in a YouTube video blasted Lightfoot and Police Superintendent David Brown as having “absolutely stupid leadership.”
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