Chicago city councilors vote down attempt to repeal vaccine status mandate

Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on the aldermen to “stop the fear-mongering” about the possibility of police manpower shortages

By John Byrne
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Members of Chicago’s City Council fell short Friday in their effort to overturn Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s rule requiring police, firefighters and other city workers to report their vaccine status or risk being suspended without pay.

Supporters of an ordinance to give the council control over “all policies, rules, and regulations governing discipline of city employees” and make the mayor’s vaccine mandate “null and void” called a special meeting on the measure. But only 13 voted in favor of it, short of the 26 needed for passage. Thirty aldermen voted against it.

Before the roll call, Lightfoot defended her policy, taking the opportunity to tout her stewardship of the city throughout the pandemic. “There’s not been a single easy decision” as mayor in the past two years, she said.

“I know, without a doubt ... the only way we can save lives and put this pandemic behind us is to get people vaccinated,” Lightfoot said. “This isn’t about whether or not we support the police or fire or first responders. Of course we do.”

The ordinance is really about power, an attempt to strip her of the ability to manage the workforce as the city’s executive, Lightfoot said. She likened the attempt to do so to the opposition Mayor Harold Washington faced from white aldermen opposed to his policies in the 1980s.

She called on aldermen to “stop the fear-mongering” about the possibility of police manpower shortages. “That’s not true,” Lightfoot said.

Yet with thousands of first-responders refusing the city’s call to the report their vaccine status — resulting in dozens of police and fire personnel being sidelined without pay and some ambulances without sufficient staffing — Friday’s meeting provided a forum for aldermen to complain about how Lightfoot has handled the situation as tension remains high between City Hall and public safety employees who are resistant.

Southwest Side Ald. Marty Quinn, 13th, said he supports vaccines, but worries the mayor’s mandate is making his neighborhoods less safe because fewer police and paramedics are on the street.

”It reinforces my concern the vaccine mandate may have created a public safety blind spot,” Quinn said.

And Southwest Side Ald. Silvana Tabares, 23rd, argued the mayor’s rules fail to make sure workers’ health care records are secure, and said “no alderman knows” why Lightfoot has set the rules she has.

“We should be able to review, ask questions and vote” on the standards, Tabares said.

But Far South Side Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, 10th, said a vaccine mandate keeps workers and residents safe. Putting discipline in the hands of aldermen would lead to chaos between the city and unions representing workers, she said.

“Are you willing to make City Council the final judge on every grievance or labor dispute that arises in the city? I’m not,” Sadlowski Garza said.

And South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, said the pandemic “is the number one killer for us right now.” Police, firefighters and others city workers need to keep residents safe when they interact with the public, he said.

“Let’s trust the science, let’s make sure we get what’s necessary and get past this,” Sawyer said.

Lightfoot’s vaccine rule, which mandated all employees report to the city by Oct. 15 whether they were vaccinated and ordered those who aren’t to get themselves tested twice weekly for COVID-19, has prompted an ugly public standoff between the mayor and Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara.

The police union and a separate group of city workers have filed court actions challenging the vaccine mandate. Two dozen police officers had been sidelined without pay for refusing to report their vaccine status, according to the FOP.

Cook County Judge Raymond Mitchell heard arguments Thursday on the FOP’s motion for a restraining order to force arbitration over the vaccination policy, and said he would rule Monday. A ruling on a separate action in federal court is due later Friday.

The mounting dispute stems from the directive Lightfoot announced in August, which Catanzara has protested by posting videos instructing his members to disobey the order. A temporary restraining order barred Catanzara from publicly encouraging further disobedience, but that rule expired earlier this week.

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. The loss of medics could lead to longer response times for Chicagoans who need the highest level of medical assistance, Tracy said.

A Fire Department spokesman said no equipment had its level of life support preparedness downgraded because of personnel issues.

Also Friday, Lightfoot emailed the City Council to tout the importance of the vaccine mandate. The mayor said 32 city departments are in 90% compliance with the reporting requirement, while Chicago Police are up to 72% compliance and fire department staff are at 87%.

In her letter, Lightfoot rebutted public safety concerns over a shortage of officers by noting that several cops who were put on no pay status subsequently backed down. Only a small number of police have been sent home, Lightfoot said. There were 35 police officers in no pay status but five have been taken off because they changed their minds and agreed to comply with the rule.

What Lightfoot didn’t mention is that the city has been slow to call workers in and put them on unpaid status, which has allowed the city to avoid staffing shortages as the standoff continues.

Lightfoot ended her letter with a plea about the importance of the vaccine.

“Every day in Chicago we still see people dying of this dreaded virus and overwhelmingly, the people who are sick in hospitals and clinging to life or worse, dying, are unvaccinated,” Lightfoot said.

After the vote, Tabares said she wants everyone to come together for a “fair policy” and called the meeting a “productive discussion.”

“I’m going to continue working,” she said.

Tabares also called for more transparency and said she wants to know how the city is picking who gets called in for discipline.

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