As New York pushes forward with some of the toughest and farthest-reaching vaccine mandates in the nation, thousands of health care workers in the state appear to be willing to be fired rather than get vaccinated.
So, too, do thousands of people who work in New York City’s public schools.
How sad that many of these vaccine holdouts are supported by their unions. Talk about a lack of solidarity.
For years, these unions defended the health and safety of their members. They fought for better wages and protected workers’ rights. They built the middle class. Now they are fighting state and city vaccine mandates aimed solely at keeping workers and communities safe and healthy. So much for the old union idea that an injury to one is an injury to all.
At least city and state government officials have the best interests of the public in mind, even if some in the labor movement have forgotten which side they’re on.
The state’s mandate, requiring vaccination of health care workers, went into effect at midnight on Monday. The city’s, which requires the same of all Department of Education employees, goes into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday. A court upheld the city mandate on Monday.
Some unions, like New York’s nurses’ union, took a reasonable approach, expeditiously negotiating over the vaccine mandate and fighting for other workplace safety measures related to the pandemic, like proper protective gear. Local 32BJ, a New York unit of the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care aides, janitors and many other lower-wage employees, has taken a similar approach and pushed hard to vaccinate its members.
But other New York unions have sought to stymie or delay the vaccine mandates. Some have argued that vaccination shouldn’t be a condition of employment at all.
The city’s teachers’ union unsuccessfully sought to delay the mandate requiring teachers and other school workers to be vaccinated. The union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, said the delay was necessary because of staffing shortages. Henry Garrido, the executive director of District Council 37, which represents cafeteria workers and others who work in schools, has fought the mandate altogether.
Then there is Oren Barzilay. He is the president of the Teamsters Local 2507, which represents the city’s emergency medical workers. For years, Mr. Barzilay fought a righteous battle to secure better pay for the city’s overworked and underpaid corps. In July, he went on Fox News and spread disinformation about the vaccines’ side effects and effectiveness.
Christell Cadet, a Fire Department paramedic in his union, feels differently. She was in a monthlong coma after getting sick with Covid-19 in March 2020.
“Had I gotten the vaccine last year, I might not have gone through everything I went through,” Ms. Cadet told me. She says she is unable to return to work and is still slogging through a grueling recovery that includes pulmonary rehabilitation and speech therapy. Her father also developed Covid-19 and suffered a nonlethal stroke as a result.
After all the death and suffering of the past year and a half, it’s little wonder that a large majority of New York State health care workers and New York City teachers are vaccinated.
Because New York unions are so large, the unvaccinated minority still represents tens of thousands of people. Though most of the state’s union leaders have supported vaccination efforts, many are working to appease anti-vaccination members as well as get them vaccinated. They’re trying to have it both ways by encouraging members to get vaccinated while also opposing, slow-walking or otherwise frustrating the mandates. Ideally, that energy would be better spent rallying their members around support for the vaccine. Or as some labor activists might say: “Don’t mourn. Organize!”
Efforts that hamper the fight against Covid should be dismissed for what they are: dangerous and irresponsible. As with any vaccine, there will be a small number of people who are eligible for a narrow exemption. Otherwise, there can be no compromise.
Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Bill de Blasio, like so many Americans, appear to have reached the limits of their empathy for vaccine holdouts.
“You have till Friday 5 o’clock,” Mr. de Blasio said on Monday. “If you’re not vaccinated, don’t come to work.” Ms. Hochul has also been resolute.
With legal challenges largely out of the way, the next concern is potential worker shortages. Mr. de Blasio has said the city will replace unvaccinated teachers with vaccinated substitutes. As of this week, about 90 percent of the city’s public-school teachers were vaccinated. City officials say they expect the percentage will be even higher by the deadline. They also say they are confident they have enough substitutes to fill any gaps come Monday.
On Monday night, Ms. Hochul signed an executive order making it easier for licensed health care workers from other states and countries to work in New York in the event of any staffing shortages. The governor also said she was prepared to call upon vaccinated medical teams from the National Guard.
Good for Governor Hochul. Good for Mayor de Blasio. These workers have every right not to get vaccinated — but they don’t have the right to keep jobs in which they needlessly endanger those around them. Personal decisions carry consequences. With freedom comes responsibility.
The mandates are good public policy. They will protect children — large numbers of whom have yet to become eligible for vaccination — as well as people seeking medical care. The mandates will also help protect workers themselves.
Already, there is evidence that the mandates may have encouraged thousands of people to get vaccinated. On Aug. 15, the day before the state vaccine mandate for health care workers was announced, 70 percent of nursing home employees had received at least one vaccine dose. As of this week, 92 percent of them had, according to surveys conducted by the State Health Department.
In New York City’s public hospital system on Monday, the number of unvaccinated workers fell to 5,000, from 8,000 the week before, the city said. By Tuesday, it said, the figure had dwindled still further.
If unvaccinated employees and the unions who represent them are betting New York will back down, it’s up to Ms. Hochul and Mr. de Blasio to show them otherwise.
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