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Compliance with COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers worst among police, firefighters

Out of 12,770 CPD employees, 4,543 had failed to report their vaccine status by the midnight Friday deadline. On Monday, employees who have defied the mandate were being called in by their supervisors and given one last chance to report their vaccine status on the city’s portal.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot along with city commissioners give an update on COVID-19 vaccination reporting for city workers, including Chicago police officers on Monday.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot along with city commissioners give an update on COVID-19 vaccination reporting for city workers, including Chicago police officers on Monday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

More than 35% of Chicago Police Department employees and 28% of the workforce in the Chicago Fire Department could face disciplinary action after defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s mandate to report their vaccination status.

The Chicago Police Department registered the lowest compliance rate of all city departments, with 64.4% providing their vaccination status to the city; the fire department was second-lowest, at 72%.

Of the 12,770 CPD employees, 4,543 failed to report their vaccine status by the midnight Friday deadline. The overwhelming majority are sworn officers, but the list includes a small percentage of civilians.

Of those who did follow orders, 6,894 reported being fully vaccinated, while 1,333 reported are not fully vaccinated — meaning either that they are not vaccinated at all or have received only the first shot of the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

The numbers were better, but not great either in the Chicago Fire Department. The overall compliance rate in CFD was 72.1%.

Of 4,907 firefighters, paramedics and a handful of civilian employees, 1,369 defied the mayor’s mandate to report their vaccine status on the city’s data portal.

Among those who did follow the reporting mandate, 2,974 reported being fully vaccinated while 564 were either not vaccinated at all or were not fully vaccinated.

Starting Monday, employees defying the mandate were being called in by their supervisors and given one last chance to report their vaccine status.

If they don’t, they will be sent home and placed on non-disciplinary, no-pay status in hopes they will change their minds after a few days without pay.

And if they still don’t change their minds?

“A department member — civilian or sworn — who disobeys a direct order by a supervisor to comply with the city of Chicago’s vaccination policy issued Oct. 8, 2021 will become the subject of a disciplinary investigation that could result in a penalty up to and including separation from the Chicago Police Department,” said an order from Tina Skahill, deputy director in the office of CPD Supt. David Brown.

“Furthermore, sworn members who retire while under a disciplinary investigation may be denied retirement credentials,” an order to the troops states.

During a late-afternoon news conference, Lightfoot said “a very small number” of officers are being stripped of their powers after getting one last chance to comply with the mandate to report their vaccine status.

The mayor reiterated she has “contingency plans that have been in place for quite some time” in case hundreds of police officers refuse the final offer and are placed on no-pay status. That plan already includes having canceled police days off.

But, she said, “The number of folks who are actually — after being given the opportunities and even a direct order — saying ‘no’ is very small. Very small. So, I’m not seeing — at least for this day — that there’s gonna be any disruption in our ability to keep our neighborhoods safe.”

Lightfoot acknowledged the need to “keep plugging away at this” but remains confident police officers will come around, particularly once they are, as she put it, “disabused of the misinformation” they’ve received from their union. Those who are not vaccinated must submit to twice-weekly testing “on their time on their dime,” she said.

“I think our young men and women in the Police Department are smarter than maybe they’ve been given credit for. They’re not gonna risk their careers by being insubordinate and having in their [personnel files] the fact that they defied a direct order of their supervisors,” the mayor said.

FOP President John Catanzara carries pizzas in to union members at Chicago Police Department headquarters on Monday who were still waiting for their turn to talk to the human resources department to address the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
FOP President John Catanzara carries pizzas in to union members at Chicago Police Department headquarters on Monday who were still waiting for their turn to talk to the human resources department to address the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

A batch of about 50 police officers were the first group to make their way into the human resources office at police headquarters on Monday, where they were given their last opportunity to offer up their vaccine status.

As of about 6 p.m., only 32 of the 50 officers had been processed, and of those officers, about half chose not to comply, according to John Catanzara, president of Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents rank-and-file CPD officers.

Those officers refusing to comply were stripped of their police powers and handed over their police stars, hats and IDs and were put on no-pay status, Catanzara said.

“Do you have any idea of how pissed off every officer is that’s being forced to make this decision about their family’s financial well-being and their own personal mental (well-being)? I mean we’ve got officers who literally have had breakdowns already because of this decision they had to make,” Catanzara said Monday evening outside CPD headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave.

He cut short chatting with reporters to carry more than a dozen pizzas from nearby Freddies in to union members who were still waiting for their turn to talk to the human resources department.

Another group of officers was scheduled to make the same trip to human resources on Tuesday. As many as approximately 4,500 officers who hadn’t reported their vaccination status as of midnight Friday still needed to go through the process.

Catanzara’s message to them: “Hold the line. Follow your hearts. Do what you need to do.”

Catanzara said the police force could be down thousands of officers by the time the process plays out.

The FOP has argued the vaccine mandate is a subject of mandatory collective bargaining and accused the mayor of ignoring the police contract. The union has sued, seeking to force arbitration on the issue.

The mayor countered it is the FOP that played “rope-a-dope” with the city — by stalling negotiations on the vaccine mandate.

“We get what the game is,” Lightfoot said. “I don’t view this as Lightfoot against the FOP. ... What this is is Lightfoot and all of these city commissioners saying, ‘We’re gonna stand up for public health and public safety and we’re gonna make sure that our workforce is as fully vaccinated as we possibly can be.”

Lightfoot was asked about the impact on already rock-bottom police morale.

“What I have concerns about is seeing more officers die needlessly of COVID-19. … We had four officers who passed away in 2020. Every single one of them from COVID-19. Every single one passed away before the vaccine was widely available,” she said.

At an online forum Monday, Ald. Chris Taliaferro, chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee and a former CPD officer, supported the mandate.

“If I’m going to ride in a car with any given officer ... why not have some confidence to know that the officer that I’m working in this car with is vaccinated, or that the officer that is going to walk in someone’s house to handle a 911 call is vaccinated?” he said.

“We need those assurances, as we are dying and day in and day out, as a result of this virus.”

Most city departments reported compliance rates above 90%. The City Council was a somewhat surprising exception at 84.4%. Of 360 total Council employees, 56 did not report their vaccine status. Of that total, 289 Council employees reported being fully vaccinated; 15 were not.

Full compliance was reported by 13 departments: the mayor’s office; the Office of Inspector General; the Departments of Housing; Cultural Affairs and Special Events; Administrative Hearings; Human Resources; Procurement Services; the Mayors of People with Disabilities; the Commission on Human Relations; the Chicago Police Board; the Chicago Board of Ethics; the Department of Buildings; and the License Appeals Commission.

The overall compliance rate for the city’s 31,483 employee workforce is just over 79.4%. That’s 25,015 responses.

Those responses to the city also would mean at least 54% of CPD personnel are vaccinated. That percentage could still climb if CPD employees refusing to report their vaccine status had a change of heart. Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said it would be wrong to assume those officers aren’t vaccinated.

“A number of the officers that I’ve talked to, who did not want to go on to the data portal to disclose their vaccination status — they were all vaccinated. They weren’t trying to avoid it because they weren’t vaccinated. They just didn’t like the way this was approached,” Hopkins said at that same online forum Monday.

“They felt that this was yet one more condescending, insulting message that was delivered to them by someone who they do not respect or admire.”

The 64.2% compliance rate for CPD falls well short of Catanzara’s warning that Chicago could be forced to get by with a police force of “50% or less.”

Catanzara has urged his members not to report their vaccination status to the city and, instead, file forms exempting them from the vaccine, listing one of three potential reasons the union has insisted upon: religious, medical or conscientious objector.

Last week, the high-stakes standoff landed in court, with a judge doing what the mayor could not — temporarily silencing Catanzara.

Circuit Judge Cecilia Horan granted the city’s request for an injunction but only to the extent that Catanzara be precluded — at least until the next hearing, now set for Oct. 25 — from making any further YouTube videos or otherwise using social media platforms to encourage his members to defy the city’s mandate to report their vaccination status.

Catanzara soon took to the union’s YouTube channel to say the courts were trying to muzzle him. But he said he would comply and urged his members to “do what’s in their hearts and minds.”

At the end of the 50-second clip, the union boss took a jab at the city leaders for how it has implemented its policy. Then he raised a campaign sign that said “John Catanzara for mayor 2023.”

“Enough is enough,” he said before abruptly ending the video.

The mayor has accused the fiery FOP president of “trying to foment an illegal work stoppage or strike” that endangers Chicago. Catanzara has flatly denied it.

“This union never called for a strike or a job action. We told our officers to continue to go to work. It was the city that was threatening to lock out our officers for not complying with an improper directive,” Catanzara said Friday in a video posted to the union’s Facebook page.

Catanzara has maintained that City Hall acknowledged from the outset the vaccine mandate was a “subject of mandatory bargaining. ... That is not in dispute, yet they have not done that.”

“So any sergeant, lieutenant, captain or above who gives you an order to go in that portal is not valid. You are able to refuse that order. They cannot order you to violate your collective bargaining rights. ... They can take us to court all they want. We already are filing paperwork to dismiss that silly motion.”

Lightfoot stood her ground.

She noted that state law and the police contract prohibit Chicago police officers from striking and accused Catanzara of defying both in an attempt to “induce an insurrection.”

“It is an illegal strike. He is encouraging officers to be insubordinate, not to follow directives, and he is predicting a 50% drop-off in police forces,” the mayor said.

“This notion that individual officers get to be insubordinate as they pick and choose? We’re not having that. And if that’s the police department they want to be in, they should walk to another police department because that is not gonna happen in the city of Chicago.”

The FOP provided its members with a form to download in the event they are called in and ordered to report their vaccine status.

It states, “I have been given an invalid direct order…. to enter my personal and private information” in the city’s data portal in direct violation of “my collective bargaining rights under the contract” between the city and the FOP.

“The matter is subject to mandatory bargaining which has not concluded and, as such, compliance would diminish my rights involuntarily and permanently. I was instructed, if I did not comply with this invalid order, that I would be charged with insubordination and placed into a no-pay status…and possibly terminated,” the form states.

“Complying with this invalid order and the violation of my bargaining, constitutional and civil rights has further caused me severe anxiety by challenging both my religious and moral beliefs. I am, in fact, complying with this because I am being forced to do so under complete duress and threats of termination.”

Officers were advised to have the supervisor giving the direct order sign the form, to keep it for themselves and send a copy to the FOP.

Contributing: Frank Main, Sneha Dey