Mayor Lori Lightfoot will put Chicago Police officers and other city workers who don’t get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sunday on non-disciplinary no-pay status, her administration said late Friday.
The city will also consider disciplining workers, though it will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis as the Lightfoot administration balances its public health policies with staffing problems in the police department.
“All City employees, including Chicago Police Officers, who fail to comply may also face disciplinary action, up to and including termination. These decisions will be addressed at an individual and department level, and are being undertaken in a manner that will not impact public safety or the continuity of everyday government operations,” her office said in a statement.
Lightfoot’s latest pronouncement comes after the city won another round in court this week in its legal battle with the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police over the vaccine mandate. But she faces pressure not just from the police union — which has appealed the latest legal ruling and claims the mandate will results in an exodus of officers — but also from a group of aldermen still seeking to undo the rule.
The lawsuit filed last year by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 and other police unions against the city resulted in a February arbitrator ruling that upheld the requirement for city employees to be vaccinated, and set this Sunday as the deadline to get the first shot.
A judge’s decision this week to deny the union’s request to reconsider, and to lift a previous order pausing the vaccine policy, were additional setbacks for the local FOP, whose president, John Catanzara, has for months insisted the mandate violated union collective bargaining agreements.
The FOP has now appealed that ruling, but Catanzara acknowledged to his membership in an online video Friday that unvaccinated officers could be placed on no-pay status Monday. However, he said the arbitrator indicated Friday that officers who have pending vaccine exemption requests will be excused from the rule until they receive a determination, and that those denied exemptions will get a six-week reprieve. Catanzara said hundreds of officers could fall into that category.
Those statements could not immediately be confirmed by a City Hall representative.
On Wednesday, when announcing the appeal, Catazara said: “I don’t know what happens over the next 72 hours. All I can tell you is we are not going to stop punching. This easily can be all averted before this cliff becomes a reality.”
The “cliff” was a reference to the just-under 2,800 Chicago police officers who remain unvaccinated — and, according to Catanzara, may walk off the force soon unless they get religious or medical exemptions to the vaccination policy.
Catanzara in recent weeks has sounded the alarm over what he said will be a “bloodbath” in Chicago if his predictions of a mass resignation come true. He did not immediately respond to questions Friday on why he thinks a substantial share of those 2,800 police officers will quit.
As of March 3, 30 members of the police department and 21 fire department employees were on no-pay status, according to a city spokesperson. Some city employees have lost pay over failing to comply with an earlier deadline to report their vaccine status or to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.
The arbitrator’s ruling noted that 6,621 Chicago police officers applied for religious exemptions as of December, about 58% of whom were still waiting for approval or denial. Only 1.5% of requests had been granted.
Citywide, 11% of all accommodations have been granted, while 52% are pending, according to the ruling.
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Catanzara in February urged union members who have been denied exemptions to keep submitting requests and to even file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging “healthcare discrimination.” This is all to pave a way for a future legal fight over the exemption process itself, he said.
Also on Friday, 12 aldermen sent a letter to Lightfoot announcing they would call a special City Council meeting if she did not respond to their concerns over the vaccination mandate. The council members flagged a “clear and present danger” to public safety should first responders be disciplined. The aldermen also pointed to “natural immunity” of workers who have been infected with COVID-19 — which public health experts do not recommend as a substitute for vaccination — and condemned what they said were “lopsided” numbers for exemptions across city departments.
“We cannot afford to lose one more police officer, firefighter, paramedic and city worker at this critical time,” the aldermen wrote.
Under Lightfoot’s directive, all city employees had until Oct. 15 to report their vaccination status but could choose to undergo regular COVID-19 testing, rather than get shots, through the end of the year. After police unions challenged the vaccine mandate in court, though, a judge suspended the Dec. 31 date for members to be fully inoculated, saying that needed to go through arbitration.
Other unions representing city workers, including firefighters, sought to do the same but failed when an arbitrator sided with the city in December. In February, the same arbitrator also handed a defeat to the police unions.
As the city’s newest deadline for the first shot nears, Lightfoot faces tough choices about enforcing the mandate. Police Department staffing is significantly down since 2019 and the city has struggled to recruit replacements for cops who have left the job. Chicago is also in the midst of a major crime spike that began in early 2020.
Cook County Judge Raymond Mitchell, in denying the FOP’s bid to toss the arbitration result Wednesday, made a plea for the two sides to come together despite the contentious road they have gone down. While nodding to his belief that “Chicago needs its police” and that “extraordinary and unrelenting challenges” plagued both city leadership and police, the judge said it wasn’t too late to sit down one more time.
“These have been tough times. Relationships may have frayed,” Mitchell wrote. “But even now, the parties to this case still have it within their power to … negotiate a compromise.”
That same day, Catanzara in a YouTube video castigated Lightfoot and police Superintendent David Brown as having “absolutely stupid leadership.”
Tribune’s John Byrne contributed.
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