May 25, 2024
NYC unions demand reinstatement,  back pay for workers fired for refusing COVID shots: ‘Make these people whole’

NYC unions demand reinstatement, back pay for workers fired for refusing COVID shots: ‘Make these people whole’

New York City’s public sector unions are doubling down on a quest to get their members reinstated with back pay if they were fired for refusing to vaccinate themselves against COVID-19.

The renewed push for reinstatement comes in response to Mayor Adams’ announcement Monday that his administration will later this week drop the city government’s longstanding coronavirus vaccine mandate.

Under Adams’ mandate rollback plan, city workers terminated for not getting their coronavirus shots would have a chance to reapply for their old jobs — but Municipal Labor Committee Chairman Harry Nespoli said that’s not good enough.

Nespoli, who also serves as the head of the Sanitation Department’s largest union, argued that all city workers axed because of the mandate should be automatically given their jobs back, and awarded back pay to compensate for the time they went without income.

The Municipal Labor Committee, which serves as the umbrella representative for all of the city’s various public sector unions, is weighing legal action to get that done, Nespoli said.

“I’m going to take all legal action I can to make these people whole,” Nespoli told the Daily News on Tuesday.

Mayor Eric Adams

Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2501, the union representing FDNY EMTs, agreed with Nespoli that fired city workers shouldn’t have to go through a reapplication process.

“We stripped away people’s dignity, stripped away their constitutional rights, and violated their beliefs. People lost their jobs, their families, and their homes for something that’s no longer required,” said Barzilay, who estimated that 37 of his members were either fired or forced to resign because of refusing to get vaccinated.

“They should be afforded an immediate reinstatement, to maintain their wages and seniority. They went through enough. That’s the least the city can do.”

Even before Monday’s announcement, public sector workers had racked up several court victories over the vaccine mandate issue.

A Staten Island judge ruled in October that the city should reinstate — with back pay — a group of Sanitation Department workers who got the boot for refusing inoculations. In September, a Manhattan judge issued a similar ruling for a group of unvaccinated NYPD officers canned under similar circumstances.

The Adams administration is appealing both those rulings, and a mayoral spokesman confirmed Tuesday that it will continue to do so despite the mandate revocation.

“There are important legal interests at stake,” the spokesman said. “The city must defend its ability to both impose a mandate and terminate non-compliant employees in the future.”

Municipal Labor Committee Chairman Harry Nespoli

In all likelihood, Nespoli said the city’s organized labor entities will continue pursuing those lawsuits, as opposed to filing new actions, as part of their bid to secure back pay and reinstatement for canned workers.

According to Adams’ office, about 1,780 municipal workers have been fired for flouting the vaccine mandate, which was first implemented by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in November 2021 as COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the city. Adams’ office did not provide a breakdown on which agencies those employees worked at.

Hundreds more workers are believed to have been given vaccine mandate exemptions under which they either went on leave or worked remotely. Those employees are expected to be able to return to their positions in full once the mandate is lifted.

Some public health experts have argued that lost in heated labor disputes over the vaccine mandate is the fact that the pandemic is not over. An average of 11 people die from COVID-19 in the city every day, and vaccination rates have stagnated, with just 14% of residents reported as being boosted with bivalent shots, according to Health Department data.

Still, Nespoli said getting vaccinated should be a choice and argued it would have been better if the city stuck with a system it maintained early on in the pandemic under which workers were told to either get their shots or submit to weekly testing.

Nespoli said at least 28 members of his Sanitation Department union were fired for not getting inoculated. “Let’s get these people back to work if they want to,” he said.

Paul DiGiacomo, president of the NYPD’s Detectives’ Endowment Association, said his union shares that sentiment.

“In a crime-weary city that needs detectives, our union members must be returned to their earned rank in the unit they were assigned to before being forced out, and receive all owed back pay,” DiGiacomo said.

Hundreds of the municipal workers fired for noncompliance with the mandate are believed to be Department of Education employees.

A spokeswoman for the United Federation of Teachers, the largest Department of Education union, declined to say if the union is contemplating legal action in light of Adams’ Monday announcement.

But the spokeswoman welcomed the announcement, saying it puts municipal workers on the same footing as private sector employees, who used to be under a vaccine mandate until Adams rolled that back in September.

“We are working with the DOE to ensure the policy change is implemented in accordance with our contract,” the spokeswoman said.

Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, FDNY’s rank-and-file union, said the mandate put his agency in serious jeopardy because, in addition to 18 members being fired for refusing to get vaccinated, “a few hundred” retired in protest.

UFA President Andrew Ansbro outside Gracie Mansion at a vaccine mandate protest in October 2021.

“The staffing at the FDNY is very low. We’re at crisis levels,” he said. “Our members are working a lot of overtime, which is causing a lot of stress on our members and their families. We hope they come back as soon as possible.”

Ansbro’s union has filed several lawsuits, demanding reinstatement and back pay. He said it will continue to pursue those lawsuits.

A source at the Uniformed Firefighters Association, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid, speculated that Adams pulled the plug on the mandate because the city’s prospects in court look bleak.

“The lawsuits were going well and he didn’t want to be on the losing side,” the source said. “So now when the lawsuits are decided, this will all be water under the bridge.”

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