Philadelphia Fire has 700+ open positions amid COVID-19 vaccine mandate
Approximately 22% of members requested exemptions, the highest proportion among the city's largest departments; 4% currently on leave
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia city officials placed about 270 workers on leave this month for failing to comply with the city's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and more than 1 in 6 of the city's public-safety employees requested to be exempt.
The employees placed on leave are a fraction of the city's unionized workforce of more than 22,000. The majority are from two departments: the Prisons Department and the Fire Department, both of which are already short staffed amid a broader labor shortage, according to data provided by Mayor Jim Kenney's administration.
More than 5% of the unionized employees in the Prisons Department were placed on leave, and nearly 4% of the Fire Department's unionized force — which includes firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs — are on leave as well, the data show.
The mandate, which was first announced in November and was long delayed while the city hashed out agreements with its municipal unions, required workers to either receive at least one dose of the vaccine or request an exemption on medical or religious grounds by June 30.
The 30-day "U-Vax leave" began on July 6. Workers may use accumulated paid time off, and then will be unpaid if that is exhausted. Employees may be fired if they remain out of compliance after the leave period.
In a statement, the Kenney administration said it provided labor unions and workers "ample opportunity to come into compliance."
"Our goal has always been to ensure the safety of our employees from the devastating impact of COVID-19," the statement said, "and we know that the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is the best tool we have in fighting this virus."
About 22% of the Fire Department and more than 15% of the Police Department requested exemptions, the highest proportion among the city's largest departments. It's significantly higher than, for example, the 8% of workers in the Streets Department who requested exemptions or the 3% in Parks and Recreation.
In all, about 12% of the city's unionized workforce — or more than 2,500 people — have either had an exemption approved or have a pending request. The city did not provide data on how many exemption requests were denied.
The city provided data on the proportion of employees whose exemption requests were either approved or pending for the 15 city departments with 100 employees or more, citing privacy concerns for smaller departments. The data did not include information on independently elected offices like the District Attorney's Office or the Sheriff's Office.
Several departments — including Licenses and Inspections, Health, and the Free Library of Philadelphia — didn't have any unionized employees placed on leave for failure to comply. Just 0.2% of the Police Department was put on leave.
Employees requesting a medical exemption were required to submit documentation from a health care provider. For religious exemptions, employees had to submit a signed statement explaining how their "sincerely held" religious belief prevents them from being vaccinated.
Mike Bresnan, president of the the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22, said Thursday that the number of exemption requests "goes to show you that these members did not want the shot." He also questioned the accuracy of the city's information, saying he'd heard from members who claimed they'd submitted exemption requests or vaccination proof but were still placed on leave.
Bresnan likened the leave to a layoff, and he lambasted Kenney, saying the mayor is "acting like a dictator."
"This is a disgrace," he said. "Kenney says, 'You do what I say, or I'll take bread off your table.' We got people with kids that are being forced with this. It's a joke."
The firefighters union staunchly opposed the vaccine mandate and sought to prevent language that would allow for employees to be fired for not being vaccinated. A labor arbitration panel ruled in May that members had to comply.
The 4% of employees placed on leave in the Fire Department is another blow to a department that's already understaffed and has struggled to fill vacancies amid a broader shortage of municipal workers. There are more than 700 vacancies in the Fire Department, accounting for about 1 in 5 positions that are budgeted for, according to a department spokesperson.
In the Prisons Department, where 5% of the unionized workforce were placed on leave, staffing reached crisis levels months ago. Correctional officers have quit en masse, and staff and prisoners have said short staffing in the jails led to riots, assaults, and deaths.
David Robinson, president of the correctional officers' union, Local 159 of AFSCME District Council 33, said he's worried placing workers on leave as the department is trying to hire will exacerbate safety issues in the jails and is "playing a dangerous game."
Robinson said he encouraged employees placed on leave to file appeals. He said forcing employees to take unpaid time off or use accrued time due to their vaccination status is "punishing" essential workers, many of whom showed up consistently through the pandemic.
"None of this makes sense. We do want a safe workforce," Robinson said. "But now when we're sending people home, we're making it a dangerous place."
In response, the Kenney administration said in a statement that it's "unfortunate" some employees did not comply with the mandate and that "some of our union partners have sought to sow fear as opposed to working collaboratively with the administration to ensure their members were not placed on leave."
"We have consistently and regularly communicated with employees regarding the upcoming deadlines," the administration said, "and it is our hope that any employee who has not taken steps to come into compliance will join the nearly 99% of their colleagues and meet the requirements of the vaccination mandate."
Several other major cities, including New York and Chicago, have implemented and enforced vaccine mandates for public-sector workers.
A vaccine mandate took effect in December for Philadelphia's more than 2,000 nonunionized municipal workers. Thirteen were fired for failing to comply.
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