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Judge stays vaccine deadline for police unions, but leaves testing, reporting requirements in place

A ruling issued Monday stays the Dec. 31 city mandate for police officers to get a shot, sending the issue back to the bargaining table.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside City Hall before a Chicago City Council meeting, Monday morning, Oct. 25, 2021.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protested against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside City Hall last week.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A Cook County judge on Monday effectively sent city attorneys and the Chicago Police Department’s labor unions back to the bargaining table to resolve a dispute over the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate — but also told the city it can’t require officers to get vaccinated by year’s end.

Those unions had sought to stop the city from enforcing its order requiring all city workers to share their vaccination status on an online portal and submit to twice-weekly testing if they are not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The case “presents two competing public interests, but one interest need not be scuttled in favor of another,” Judge Raymond Mitchell wrote in his ruling. “The City’s public health objective and the police union’s desire to pursue their grievances are not wholly irreconcilable.”

Mitchell, who heard arguments in the case last week by attorneys for the Fraternal Order of Police and the city, left intact the requirement that CPD officers report their vaccine status and the city’s current policy requiring multiple weekly tests for unvaccinated officers. But Mitchell’s order does stay the Dec. 31 deadline for all officers to be vaccinated, urging the city and union to pursue arbitration.

“The reporting obligation itself is a minimal intrusion,” Mitchell wrote, “particularly considering that police officers already are obligated to provide medical information to their employer.”

Though the judge left the reporting requirement in place, he said the deadline to be vaccinated was different.

“‘Obey now, grieve later’ is not possible,” Mitchell wrote. “If every union member complied and was vaccinated by December 31 ... they would have no grievance to pursue and there would be no remedy an arbitrator could award. An award of back pay or reinstatement cannot undo a vaccine. Nothing can.”

In a separate lawsuit, a federal judge on Friday had denied a bid for a temporary restraining order blocking the city’s vaccine mandate. That request came from a group of Chicago firefighters and other city employees.

Mitchell’s order would not appear to alter the status of officers who so far have refused to divulge their vaccination status, in violation of an Oct. 15 deadline imposed by the department.

Later Monday, the city released its latest data on employee response to the vaccine mandate. It showed about 87% of all employees have reported their status, and of those, 82% are fully vaccinated. The reporting rate for CPD continues to be the lowest of all city departments, with 73% responding, and 80% of those saying they were vaccinated.

Noting that “judicial intervention in labor disputes is disfavored,” Mitchell wrote, “my intention is to enter to narrowest possible order to preserve the unions’ right to a meaningful arbitration. The balance of the City’s vaccination policy remains fully in effect, including the reporting and testing obligations.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot chose to focus not on the judge eliminating the vaccination deadline, but on his upholding the reporting requirement.

“The mandate continues. … Our lawyers are looking at the judge’s ruling. They’re looking at what our legal options are. But what I know is, we cannot stop. ... This is about saving peoples’ lives,” the mayor said later Monday.

Lightfoot said the city has tried to negotiate a compromise with the FOP since August, but the union is hell-bent on running out the clock.

“How many more members have to die before you come to the table? ... If you’re serious about it, come to the table every single day, starting today, and let’s get a deal done,” she said.

“What they’re serious about is obstructing, obfuscating and telling half-truths. … I do not want people to die in my city when there is a life-saving, free, safe vaccine readily available.”

Lightfoot was asked whether the judge’s ruling is a “validation” of both the vaccine mandate and the reporting mandate.

“If you look at what’s happening in court cases all across the country — whether it’s firemen, police or others that are challenging these mandates — I’m not aware of a single instance in which a mandate put in place has been invalidated,” she said.

“The silent, overwhelming majority of folks in city government recognize the need for the vaccine and, frankly, don’t want to work next to somebody who they don’t know what their vaccine status is.”

Although thousands of police officers still have not reported their vaccination status, only 30 have been placed on no-pay status.

Still, the mayor insisted the city is moving with “deliberate speed” — painstakingly explaining the mandate one last time and giving non-compliant officers one more chance to report their vaccination status.

“This isn’t quick work. Sometimes, it takes multiple hours,” she said, arguing that the vast majority of officers “sign up on the spot.”

Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file officers, was joined in its lawsuit by smaller unions representing CPD sergeants, lieutenants and captains.

Ahead of that Oct. 15 deadline to report their vaccination status, Lodge 7 President John Catanzara had urged his members to defy that order, warning that if enough officers landed on no-pay status for refusing, the police force would be hobbled.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara addresses a group of union protesters and their supporters as they rally against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside City Hall before a Chicago City Council meeting, Monday morning, Oct. 25, 2021.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara addresses a group of union protesters and their supporters at a rally against COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside City Hall last week.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Joel D’Alba, the police union’s attorney, had argued last week that the city should be ordered to stop enforcing its mandate entirely until the matter is resolved. D’Alba declined to comment on Monday’s ruling. Catanzara could not be reached for comment.

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), one of the police unions’ staunchest City Council allies, said the judge’s decision to stay the Dec. 31 vaccine deadline until the FOP’s grievances can be arbitrated is “a lot more American” than Lightfoot’s mandate from on high.

“Instead of forcing people to do something, you bring it to a conversation and arbitration,” Napolitano said.

“The fundamentals of the contract have been denied. A collective bargaining agreement is just that. You collectively bargain for what you’re going to do to members. That was never done. That’s why this needs to go to arbitration.”

Monday’s ruling applies only to the police unions. But Napolitano said opposition to the vaccine mandate is coming from all city unions, not just those representing first responders.

“I’m just hoping that this is kind of the segue to all other unions filing suits and having the same results,” he said.

Another lawsuit was filed against the vaccine mandate on Sunday, before Mitchell’s ruling. The 13 named plaintiffs, all union members, work in various areas, including the Department of Streets and Sanitation, the Department of Transportation and CPD.

Some in that suit say they have complied with the reporting requirement, but only under duress. The suit, filed in federal court, argues that “the vaccine will not stop the spread of COVID-19 among city of Chicago workers nor in the city.”

In that new lawsuit, some plaintiffs also said they had either been exposed or tested positive, had symptoms and recovered, so they “may have natural immunity.” One plaintiff claimed he “got better” after taking ivermectin, a cheap drug used to kill worms and other parasites in humans and animals, but which has not been approved for use against the coronavirus.

Napolitano said he would have preferred a more sweeping temporary restraining order that also stayed the requirement that police officers report their vaccine status.

“That’s a big push in this, too. People don’t want to share that information. So, baby steps. Hopefully, that’s the next move,” Napolitano said.

“A lot of people have fought for many, many, many years — way before COVID — for the right to govern their own body. … And that has been completely stripped from city workers. And when it’s done through an executive order, it takes us out as a City Council and it’s a forced ruling.”

Napolitano has served the city as both a police officer and a firefighter. He represents a far Northwest Side ward that is home to scores of police officers.

Another former police officer on the Council, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety, strongly disagreed with Mitchell’s ruling.

“I don’t believe that the contract requires that every policy that’s implemented by executive order be a contract issue. The mayor is the chief executive of every single department within the city,” Taliaferro said.

Now that the Dec. 31 vaccination deadline for city workers has been lifted, Taliaferro said he’s concerned the incentive for CPD officers to get the shot has been removed.

“I hope those that are not vaccinated really take a deep look and see the good and the science behind this vaccination, [and] see … that they can preserve their lives, their family’s well-being and others as well,” Taliaferro said.

“A person has a right to be able to choose whether or not to be vaccinated. But there’s consequences and those consequences may be personal. There’s a lot people that are still dying from this virus.”