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Raleigh cops, firefighters sue city over COVID vaccine promotion policy

The lawsuit alleges discrimination, including a policy that limits promotions to only vaccinated workers

Raleigh Police Department

A lawsuit brought by 68 cops, firefighters, and other city workers calls a number of Raleigh policies discriminatory, including the city’s decision to limit promotions to those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Raleigh Police Department

By Julian Shen-Berro
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — A group of 68 Raleigh police officers, firefighters and other city employees filed a lawsuit this week, claiming the city’s COVID-19 vaccination policies are “discriminatory.”

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Wake County Superior Court, names the City of Raleigh, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin and City Manager Marchell Adams-David as defendants, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The News & Observer.

Attorneys James Lawrence and Anthony Biller of Envisage Law represent the 68 city employees, including 34 police officers and 19 firefighters.

The complaint calls a number of Raleigh policies discriminatory, including the city’s decision to limit promotions to those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Without even bothering to put the matter up to a vote, the Mayor and City Manager issued the following communique to more than 3,800 police officers, firefighters, and other City workers: you can keep working for us, but if you do not take one of the COVID-19 vaccines, we will not promote you,” attorneys wrote in the complaint.

The lawsuit comes after a group of more than 100 city employees threatened legal action over the policy last year.

Julia Milstead, a spokeswoman for the city, said it could not comment on any pending or current lawsuits.

As of Wednesday, 84.6% of full-time city employees and 56.3% of part-time employees were vaccinated, Milstead said.

About 79% of police department employees and 75% of fire department employees are vaccinated, Milstead said.

Raleigh’s vaccine policies

Last year, the city implemented policies limiting promotions to those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and requiring those who have not been vaccinated to undergo weekly testing.

As of April 1, unvaccinated employees are no longer required to undergo weekly testing, but the promotion requirement remains in effect, Milstead said.

Under the city policy, requests for exemptions due to medical or religious reasons will be “reviewed and determined on a case-by-case basis.”

The city will also add a $50 monthly health insurance surcharge for employees, retirees and spouses covered under Raleigh’s health care plan who do not provide proof of vaccination. That surcharge will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

The lawsuit states these policies force employees “to choose between putting a vaccine into their bodies that they have serious questions and concerns about and looking for career advancement elsewhere.”

Lawsuit alleges policies violate city, state law

Among other complaints in the lawsuit, plaintiffs argued that by treating vaccinated and unvaccinated employees differently, Raleigh violated its own anti-discrimination policy.

The city’s anti-discrimination policy states the city will “oppose any discrimination based on actual or perceived age, mental or physical disability, sex, religion, race, color, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, familial or marital status, economic status, veteran status or national origin in any aspect of modern life.”

The complaint pointed to a subsection of that policy that directs the city manager to “insure that there is no discrimination in any function or area of City government.” The plaintiffs argue in the lawsuit that the section does not specify any protected classes, and that the city’s vaccine mandate discriminates against those who are not vaccinated.

But a professor of labor and employment law at UNC-Chapel Hill told The News & Observer last year he thought it was unlikely a court would read the city policy that way, further noting that vaccine mandates are not new.

The lawsuit also alleges that the city overstepped its power and lacks “the express power” to mandate vaccines under state law.

Other complaints in the lawsuit allege the city’s policies violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs have requested a trial by jury.

(c)2022 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)