City officials, UFT at an impasse over Department of Education vaccine mandate

COVID-19 vaccinations in New York
A person receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a mobile inoculation site in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, U.S., August 18, 2021. REUTERS/David ‘Dee’ Delgado

New York City and its teacher union, the United Federation of Teachers, are in a stalemate over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all public school teachers. 

Officials announced in late August that the city’s 148,000 Department of Education workers would be required to get at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27. The mandate ruffled the feathers of union leadership who insisted vaccination and testing policies be crafted during bargaining negotiations and not unilaterally ordered. 

On Thursday, UFT President Micheal Mulgrew told reporters negotiations with the City  had gone “to a very bad place” and that mediation from the state’s public employment relations board, a three-member group appointed by the governor tasked with helping settle collective bargaining disputes under the Taylor Law, was needed to continue conversations with City negotiators. 

According to the UFT, City officials want to remove unvaccinated public school teachers from payroll even if the educator qualifies for a medical or religious exemption for the vaccine which he charged violates teacher contracts as well as state and federal law.  

Teachers with a medical issue preventing them from getting the shot would be put on unpaid leave once they have used all of their sick days while those with religious objections would immediately be put on unpaid leave, according to the union. And in addition to losing their salaries, educators with both exemptions would also lose their health insurance. 

The city also does not want to accommodate public school teachers requesting an exemption from teaching in-person with a remote assignment instructing the roughly 5,000 medically fragile students that will be taking part in home instruction this fall, according to the UFT. 

“If you are trying to remove someone from payroll because they are literally allergic to the compounds inside the vaccine or their immune system is so compromised, even though they are vaccinated, they need a medical accommodation…that’s disgusting as far as I’m concerned,” Mulgrew said during a Zoom call Thursday afternoon.  

The UFT is urging the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to offer teachers a vaccine alternative, such as COVID-19 testing, like it does to other municipal workers. 

“The health and safety of New York City children and the protection of our employees is at the core of the vaccine mandate,” said DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson. “We will continue to negotiate with the UFT to reach a successful agreement because that is what’s best for our school communities.”

So far, about 80 % of all New York City public school teachers have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Mulgrew.

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