Judge temporarily halts vaccine mandate for St. Paul police, fire departments

Police and firefighter unions had filed lawsuits against the city alleging unfair labor practices

By Mara H. Gottfried
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

ST. PAUl, Minn. — After a judge agreed to temporarily put St. Paul's vaccine mandate for some city employees on hold, the St. Paul mayor's office said Thursday they would postpone enforcement of the requirement citywide until further order from the court.

The St. Paul police and firefighter unions, along with another labor group, filed lawsuits against the city. They sought a temporary restraining order to halt the requirement from being put in place as scheduled at the end of this month until their claim about unfair labor practices can be resolved.

Ramsey County District Robert Awsumb heard from both sides on Dec. 9, took the matter under advisement and then agreed to the order in a Thursday court filing, which says the city is temporarily barred from implementing the vaccine policy for the members of the police, fire and Tri-Council unions until further order from the court.

"The parties are urged to resume negotiations or consider submitting this dispute to binding interest arbitration in the interim," Awsumb wrote. "An arbitrator can resolve the dispute as to whether mandatory vaccination or vaccination with a testing option will be implemented as a term of the (collective bargaining agreement)."

The policy that Mayor Melvin Carter announced in October is different from those in place for government workers at St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, the city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota — those allow an option for employees to opt out of vaccination by agreeing to regular COVID-19 testing. St. Paul made the decision to not allow testing instead of immunization because the vaccine is "the best way to fight against" COVID-19, Assistant City Attorney Megan Hafner said during the earlier hearing. Employees without proof of vaccination or an exemption could face termination.

"These cases, and indeed this order, are not about the value and importance of vaccination against COVID-19," Awsumb wrote in the order. "Vaccines have been found to be safe and effective in preventing death and sickness due to COVID-19, and it is a marvel of modern science that these vaccines have been made available to the public so quickly and effectively.

"The primary issue raised by these lawsuits is whether the City has violated the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act and the terms of the (collective bargaining agreements) by implementing the COVID-19 Vaccination Requirement Policy without first negotiating that issue with the Unions and submitting the matter to binding interest arbitration," the judge continued.

A court scheduling conference is planned for Jan. 20 to address the status of negotiations.

"COVID-19 is the leading cause of death among police officers and firefighters," said Carter's communications director Peter Leggett. "We will do everything we can to protect them, their families, and the public we serve."

Chris Wachtler, an attorney representing the firefighters union, said he's hopeful that an agreement can be reached with the city.

"All we really wanted in this situation is a testing option, so if they're willing to sit down and explore that and/or give it to us, there's fertile ground to resolve this," Wachtler said.

The mandate originally called for the city's nearly 4,000 employees to complete a COVID-19 vaccine series by Dec. 31 and provide proof of vaccination by Jan. 14. The police and fire unions previously estimated about 80 percent of their members were vaccinated.

During this time, the city's human resources department will continue to accept proof of vaccination from city workers who want to voluntarily provide the information, according to Leggett.

St. Paul's policy states that people may qualify for a religious exemption or an accommodation due to a medical condition or recent treatment for COVID-19 and the city has received 248 requests. They'll postpone accepting new requests and processing existing ones.

The lawsuits say the unions didn't reach agreements with the city before Carter announced the mandate. The unions argued the matter must be bargained or go to arbitration.

Hafner, meanwhile, said during the Dec. 9 hearing that the city had the right to establish the policy, didn't have to negotiate over it, and they met with the unions in advance of enacting it.

The St. Paul Police Federation, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 and Tri-Council, which each filed lawsuits over the vaccinate mandate, represent about one-third of St. Paul's workers.

Tri-Council is made up of laborers in the city's Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments, as well as heavy equipment operators, snowplow operators, forestry workers and sewer and water workers.

(c)2021 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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