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Judge pauses deadline for Chicago cops to get vaccinated

A judge ruled that the mandate must be arbitrated with police unions before employees can face consequences

Chicago police officers wear masks

Chicago police officers wear masks as they walk on the street in downtown Chicago, Thursday, May 7, 2020.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

By Alice Yin and Gregory Pratt
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A Cook County judge ruled Monday that the city’s vaccination mandate can remain in place for now, but unionized Chicago Police Department employees can’t face consequences for not getting vaccinated until the policy goes through arbitration.

The written decision by Judge Raymond Mitchell to grant a partial temporary restraining order centers on the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police’s lawsuit against the city following a directive for all employees to report their vaccination status by Oct. 15, which thousands of first-responders did not do.

His ruling means that the city can continue placing officers on no-pay status for disobeying the city’s reporting requirement, but the original Dec. 31 deadline to get vaccinated or face consequences will no longer apply. Instead, parties must first resolve the issue through arbitration via the labor board.

The judge wrote that one of the city’s arguments — that union already has a mechanism for due process, through a union grievance — isn’t sufficient in this case.

“’Obey now, grieve later’ is not possible” with the Dec. 31 vaccine deadline, he wrote. “If every union member complied ... they would have no grievance to pursue and there would no remedy an arbitrator could award. An award of back pay or reinstatement cannot undo a vaccine. Nothing can.”

Earlier, the FOP had motioned 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.

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.

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 last week.

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

The city also took the union to court after its leadership openly encouraged members to defy the rule. Both cases remain pending.

A court filing from the city last week 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.

Lawyers for the city have repeatedly insinuated the FOP is hoping to drag out the Dec. 31 deadline, with one of their briefs last week alleging an “ongoing campaign of delay, distraction and disruption in the hope that they can pressure the City to withdraw its Vaccination Policy.”

Still, when it comes to the vaccination policy itself, Mitchell noted he did not want to interfere and allowed the reporting and COVID-19 testing requirements to stand. But the dispute between the city and FOP needs to be arbitrated, he said, and they will have to do so through the bargaining table, not the courts.

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