City went too far in worker crackdown over COVID-19 vaccinations, judge rules

In a case that applies to members of several unions, an administrative law judge for a state agency rules the city has to reinstate workers and make up for lost wages and benefits.

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Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protested outside City Hall in October over COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protest outside City Hall in 2021 over the city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Unionized city of Chicago employees fired or disciplined for violating COVID-19 vaccination requirements must be reinstated and repaid for any loss of wages or benefits, a state hearing officer has ruled.

The decision in a case before the Illinois Labor Relations Board applies to city workers represented by trade unions or by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The unions banded together to challenge regulations Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed starting in 2021.

Administrative Law Judge Anna Hamburg-Gal said the city violated the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act by not bargaining in good faith over vaccine requirements and changes in sick leave policies. Her ruling, issued Wednesday, requires the city to “make whole” workers who lost pay and benefits, plus 7% annual interest.

The ruling is a broad rebuke of Lightfoot’s get-tough policies on city workers who resisted vaccination mandates, but it’s not known how many employees were penalized. One source said a few dozen employees may be directly affected by the decision.

Hamburg-Gal’s ruling goes to the agency’s board for review, and any party in the case has 30 days to file an appeal, called an “exception” in this process. The agency’s final decision can be contested directly with the Illinois Appellate Court.

“We think it’s a strong decision and favorable for worker rights generally,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME. “At issue in this case is whether an employer has an obligation to bargain over significant changes to terms and conditions of employment.”

Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said through a spokesman that the ruling “defends the rights of workers to have a say in their workplace through collective bargaining. We are hopeful that the full board will uphold the decision of the [judge] and the City will not seek to file exceptions.”

The CFL was involved in negotiations with the city.

The mayor’s office said the ruling “was an erroneous decision that does not follow the law, facts, nor importantly, the science. We are currently reviewing the ruling and evaluating next steps.”

The office would not discuss the case beyond its statement.

The ruling does not directly affect police officers, although the Fraternal Order of Police has its own case pending before the state board. FOP President John Catanzara led resistance to Lightfoot’s vaccine mandate and likened it to the Holocaust — a move that drew condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League and ultimately an apology from the outspoken union boss.

On Thursday, Catanzara lauded the ruling as “a pretty resounding win for labor in this city and state.”

He said there’s “no reason” to continue pursuing the separate labor board case brought by the FOP, which he noted was bogged down by a “legal fight” stemming from an arbitrator’s decision to uphold the city’s mandate.

“Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson is championing union rights,” Catanzara said in a Youtube video. “Well, this is his first true test. Are they going to challenge the labor board ruling? Or are they just going to accept it, move on and do the right thing on behalf of all union members in this city?”

In March 2022, Lightfoot insisted that only 16 police officers were on no-pay status for defying the vaccine mandate.

A key issue was the city’s contention that the pandemic and the availability of vaccines required it to move quickly and impose new policies without unions’ approval. According to Hamburg-Gal’s ruling, the city disciplined workers for not reporting vaccination status by Oct. 15, 2021, and for not having the shots by Dec. 31, 2021.

In October 2021, “the pandemic had been in existence for well over a year and a vaccine had been available to the public for over 10 months under Emergency Use Authorization,” Hamburg-Gal said in rejecting the city’s argument that “exigent circumstances” allowed it to impose the rules.

“Multiple” employees, she said, were placed on non-paid status for missing those deadlines, and some were fired starting in August 2022, she said. “The Respondent thereby elected to pursue a far harsher approach than it had taken before against violators of its vaccination policy,” Hamburg-Gal wrote.

The case affects union members working as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, laborers, operating engineers and other job categories.

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