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Chris Wachtler

Judge rules in favor of St. Paul unions over COVID vaccination mandate


A judge ruled Thursday that the city of St. Paul’s COVID vaccination policy for police, firefighters and legions of other unionized city workers should have been part of the bargaining process, and he barred the city from enforcing it until it is approved as part of a negotiated agreement.

The employee unions filed lawsuits last year over the vaccine mandate for employees, calling it an unfair labor practice — and the judge agreed.

The firefighters’ lawsuit noted that the city didn’t negotiate with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 before making “a unilateral change to the terms and conditions” of employment for Local 21 members.

In his ruling, Ramsey County Judge Leonardo Castro noted that the city didn’t engage in bad faith by implementing the vaccination policy, but nevertheless enacted an unfair labor policy.

“The City was faced with the height of a pandemic and based its actions upon what it believed to be in the best interest of the health and safety of its employees and the public,” Castro wrote in the ruling. “There was no malice, conspiracy or employee targeting involved.”

The city did engage in discussions of the policy with union representatives, Castro wrote, though not in formal bargaining.

For an issue such as injecting your own body with a foreign substance versus losing your job, he reasoned, that’s not enough.

“It is difficult for this Court to imagine what could be more intrusive and more destructive to the employer-employee relationship than requiring employees to forfeit their bodily autonomy in the name of maintaining their livelihood,” he wrote.

Unlike policies for workers at St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, the city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota, St. Paul’s policy doesn’t include an option for employees to opt out of vaccination by agreeing to regular COVID-19 testing.

Mayor Melvin Carter announced on Oct. 21 the vaccine mandate for the nearly 4,000 employees of the city. The vaccination policy says workers “will not be permitted to work and may be subject to discipline” if they weren’t vaccinated by Dec. 31. The policy did allow for a religious exemption or an accommodation due to a medical condition or recent treatment for COVID-19.

At the end of last year, a “significant percentage” of firefighters “expressed … personal, moral, religious and/or medical objections to receiving a vaccination,” according to an affidavit from Mike Smith, Local 21 president. He and the police union estimated in November that 20 percent of their members weren’t vaccinated. The fire department’s authorized strength is 435.

Chris Wachtler, the attorney representing several unions who sued, said he was pleased with the ruling but emphasized it didn’t reflect an anti-vaccine sentiment by the unions he represents, which include firefighters and supervisors, as well as a host of workers in city departments that range from public works to transportation.

“The unions are not against vaccinations per se,” Wachtler said. “That wasn’t what this was about. This was about a narrow labor issue. … They (city leaders) weren’t going to give a testing option from the very beginning. That’s all we ever asked for.”

The unions and the city held limited talks before the city put the mandate in place. Castro’s ruling appears to essentially send the city and the unions back to the bargaining table, where Wachtler said he expects his unions to ask for an exception to the vaccine mandate that would allow workers to regularly get tested for COVID-19 instead.

“I am very confident that had the city done that from the beginning, we wouldn’t have had this legal option battle,” he said.

City of St. Paul spokesman Kamal Baker said officials are “reviewing the court’s decision and (are) considering the best path forward to reduce the spread and severity of COVID-19 to ensure the safety of our employees and residents. We remain committed to our efforts to have a fully vaccinated workforce.”

The effectiveness of testing as a means to reduce workplace transmission right now is unclear, since coronavirus variants currently circulating are frequently not detected by widely used rapid tests, even after symptoms have begun. It’s also true that vaccine effectiveness against infection wanes over time — although they still reduce the risk of infection, and especially of hospitalization and death.

Source: Pioneer Press

“In  litigation related to the nationwide effort to adjudicate the legality of vaccine mandates, three public sector unions (two of which are represented by Wachtler Law)  in St. Paul were successful in obtaining a temporary injunction on behalf of their members a few months back when City proposed to force members to choose between being vaccinated and losing their jobs. On June 2, on dueling motions to decide the question on a more permanent basis, a judge ruled that the City’s failure to negotiate this proposed policy violated Minnesota labor law. The City’s failure to offer a testing option forced the unions to push back, and it paid off.”

Read the decision here ››