88% of Chicago FFs vaccinated, per city records; unvaccinated FFs now face suspension, firing
Firefighters Union Local 2 President Jim Tracy said the real number of unvaccinated FFs is even lower as members make the best of a "rotten situation"
CHICAGO — Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deadline has passed for Chicago firefighters and thousands of other city workers to either get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face suspension without pay and possible firing — setting up another showdown between her and unionized employees who don’t want to comply with the edict.
The city touted that nearly 84% of its workforce of more than 30,000 employees is fully vaccinated and pledged this week to follow through on putting workers who missed Monday’s deadline on “no-pay status,” but offered no timeline.
The move could potentially have the most serious consequences at the Chicago Fire Department. More than 550 firefighters and paramedics — about 12% of the department — have reported they are not vaccinated, according to city records.
But Firefighters Union Local 2 President Jim Tracy said the real number of unvaccinated firefighters and paramedics is lower than the city’s numbers reflect.
Many members of the department got vaccinated in recent months, but didn’t tell the city they’d done so, Tracy said. Still others listed among the unvaccinated 558 are out on some kind of disability status, and won’t be reporting for duty anytime soon, he said.
Only “a couple, like two or three” unvaccinated firefighters were forced to get the inoculation as the Jan. 31 deadline approached when Fire Department officials informed them they could either do so or go on no-pay status, according to Tracy. More unvaccinated firefighters will get the ultimatum in the coming days. Others have applied for religious or medical exemptions, he said.
“They’re making the best of a rotten situation,” Tracy said. “They’re still furious. I’m furious. They should never be in a situation where they’re being forced to get vaccinated. When you’ve got guys with 15, 17, 18 years on the job, though, they stand to lose their pensions if they don’t comply.”
“It’s (Lightfoot’s) ballgame, it’s her rules,” Tracy said. “If you don’t play by her rules, you can’t be on the team.”
Asked when unvaccinated city workers will start getting suspended, mayoral spokesman Ryan Johnson on Tuesday released a statement saying the city is “addressing those employees who are not in compliance at an individual and department level.”
“Employees were fully advised of the deadline and the consequences, and we are taking action,” Johnson’s statement reads in part. “This includes placing employees in no-pay status and disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
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Chicago police are not included in the latest vaccine deadline, as the Fraternal Order of Police is in a separate arbitration with the city, challenging the mandate. A total of 2,967 Police Department employees, nearly 24% of the department’s full complement, have told the city they aren’t vaccinated.
Monday’s deadline for Fire Department personnel and other city workers was also the result of arbitration between the city and several unions. But local FOP President John Catanzara said in a recent video that its case is distinct and that COVID-19 testing for employees, rather than the vaccine, is a preferred solution.
“I don’t want anybody to think that it’s going to be the same decision that Local 2 got. We went an entirely different route” in making its arguments, he said. “Hopefully the arbitrator understands that testing is the most logical path forward.”
The matter landed in arbitration after the FOP and the city took each other to court over the vaccine mandate and a Cook County judge suspended the Dec. 31 vaccination deadline for union members. A ruling is expected soon.
For Lightfoot, Monday’s deadline and the ongoing showdown present obvious challenges. She has proved reluctant to bend to union demands, and has a particularly icy relationship with the FOP. If the mayor doesn’t stick to her “no-pay” pledge, her acquiescence could be seen as weakness.
But if she suspends workers, critics might try to make her wear the jacket for city service disruptions such as longer Fire Department response times or snow plowing delays.
Johnson, the mayoral spokesman, said Tuesday that there were eight firefighters on no-pay status. “Additionally, the city has contingency plans in place but do not anticipate any interruptions in service or operations,” he said in a statement.
Monday’s cutoff point was just the latest attempt by the mayor to force city employees and the unions that represent many of them into line on the vaccines.
Lightfoot announced the vaccine mandate in August, saying all city employees had until Dec. 31 to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. But the unions successfully argued their collective bargaining agreements gave them the right for arbitration over the matter.
In a mid-December ruling, an arbitrator said several unions, including the one representing firefighters, had to follow the vaccination policy, giving them until Dec. 31 to get the first shot and until Jan. 31 for the second if they opted for a two-dose vaccine. Employees covered by the decision who didn’t comply or get a religious or medical exemption could lose pay, the ruling said.