Judge: Minn. city's COVID vaccination policy for FFs, cops should be part of bargaining process

The decision bars St. Paul from enforcing the rule until it is approved as part of a negotiated agreement


Frederick Melo, Dave Orrick
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A judge ruled Thursday that the city of St. Paul’s COVID vaccination policy for police, firefighters and those in the teamsters unions should have been part of the bargaining process, and he barred the city from enforcing it until it is approved as part of a negotiated agreement.

The three employee unions filed lawsuits last year over the coronavirus vaccine mandate for employees, calling it an unfair labor practice.

The lawsuit brought by the  International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 said that the city didn’t negotiate with the union before making “a unilateral change to the terms and conditions” of employment for its members.
The lawsuit brought by the  International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 said that the city didn’t negotiate with the union before making “a unilateral change to the terms and conditions” of employment for its members. (Photo/Getty)

The firefighters’ lawsuit noted that the city didn’t negotiate with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 before making “a unilateral change to the terms and conditions” of employment for Local 21 members.

In his ruling, Ramsey County Judge Leonardo Castro noted that the city didn’t engage in bad faith by implementing the vaccination policy, but nevertheless enacted an unfair labor policy.

“The City was faced with the height of a pandemic and based its actions upon what it believed to be in the best interest of the health and safety of its employees and the public,” Castro wrote in the ruling. “There was no malice, conspiracy or employee targeting involved.”

The city did engage in discussions of the policy with union representatives, Castro wrote, though not in formal bargaining.

Unlike policies for workers at St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, the city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota, St. Paul’s policy doesn’t include an option for employees to opt out of vaccination by agreeing to regular COVID-19 testing.

Mayor Melvin Carter announced on Oct. 21 the vaccine mandate for the nearly 4,000 employees of the city. The vaccination policy says workers “will not be permitted to work and may be subject to discipline” if they weren’t vaccinated by Dec. 31. The policy did allow for a religious exemption or an accommodation due to a medical condition or recent treatment for COVID-19.

At the end of last year, a “significant percentage” of firefighters “expressed … personal, moral, religious and/or medical objections to receiving a vaccination,” according to an affidavit from Mike Smith, Local 21 president. He and the police union estimated in November that 20 percent of their members weren’t vaccinated. The fire department’s authorized strength is 435.

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